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STEM professionals in the UK civil service – an international comparative study

Published on July 2nd 2021

Promoting the study of STEM fields has become a priority in many countries, as science-related competencies, problem-solving and quantitative analysis are considered essential in today’s data-based and innovation-driven economy. STEM skills are believed to play an important role in developing the technical and scientific innovation that will drive the next generation of high-value products and services across industries.

As such, successive governments, in the UK and elsewhere, have given much prominence to ensuring that the flow of graduates from STEM degrees into economic activity is appropriate and fit for purpose. However, most of the discussions have focused on STEM professionals in the private sector, with less attention being paid to their contribution to the public sector.

Recently, there have been calls for more people with STEM qualifications to be employed within the UK civil service, for a number of reasons.

Some suggest that STEM skills are directly and vitally important to the workings of the UK government, for example, in the analysis that they provide. Some suggest that STEM skills are required for understanding certain policy issues related to science and technology, with a lack of these skills putting the UK at a disadvantage compared to other nations. Some believe that STEM offers unique insights into the future implications of new developments in science and technology, while others suggest that those with STEM skills bring different lenses to policy problems. Some propose that they operate as “translators” between the policy and science worlds, for example, in policy-making and research commissioning, while others suggest that they operate as links between the worlds of academia and policy.

While there are calls for more people with STEM qualifications within the UK civil service, it is unclear how many people currently have STEM qualifications within the civil service, and how the UK compares to other nations. Do other countries’ governments have more civil servants with STEM qualifications? If so, what strategies are they using to attract and retain this talent?

This report has been prepared for the Gatsby Foundation, and it reviews levels of STEM qualifications within the civil service in the United Kingdom, aiming to extract lessons through comparison with case studies on Singapore, the United States, Germany and South Korea. This comparison study reviews STEM graduate levels between countries, and the proportion of civil service employees who are STEM graduates, identifying the influence of the government R&D landscape on the latter. These countries allow us to illustrate a diversity of practices within civil service structures, with a detailed focus on attraction, retention and remuneration for STEM professionals.

This study finds a fundamental ‘accounting’ issue of how civil servants are defined between countries, particularly around STEM researchers in governmental research organisations. This issue means it is not possible to readily separate out and compare numbers related to a “Whitehall” civil service. This study finds that the proportion of civil servants with STEM qualifications is poorly comparable between nations, because of differences in centralisation of government R&D and the fact that many countries do not report these figures.

Where figures are available, they appear to show that the UK civil service has lower proportions of employees with STEM backgrounds or in STEM occupations (~2.2–6.8%) than comparator countries, such as the USA (15.9%) and South Korea (~30%). It is likely, however, that these figures for the UK are under-estimated and may be at least as high as 9–13%. This report echoes the findings of other recent reports in identifying that better data on skills within the civil service is needed.

This is supported by analysis showing that the UK may be expected to have lower proportions of STEM-trained individuals within the civil service than comparator countries. Lower proportions of STEM-trained graduates are taking up positions in the civil service in the UK compared to non-STEM graduates,5 potentially because of the lower starting salaries and the lower likelihood of undertaking skilled work in their area of training. While the UK has high proportions of STEM graduates, the UK has a relatively low proportion of graduates in engineering and manufacturing compared to Germany and Korea, which may influence the relative ability of the UK civil service to attract this subset of STEM talent.

Currently, government recruitment mechanisms designed to target those with STEM qualifications, particularly those within the UK, are of insufficient size to substantially influence the proportion of STEM professionals in the overall civil service workforce. Other countries provide potential avenues for improving STEM concentrations within the civil service. For example, some countries such as Singapore use salary-matching to market-competitive rates for STEM professionals, and, unlike the USA, the UK does not have the potential to pay by performance within the civil service.

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The contributors to this briefing note are Liz Killen, Jennifer Castaneda Navarrete, Michele Palladino, David Leal-Ayala, Carlos López-Gómez and Victor Aramburu Cano. With thanks to Eoin O’Sullivan at the Centre for Science, Technology & Innovation Policy at the University of Cambridge for academic guidance and useful comments.

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