Public Sector Future Podcast: Episode 15 | Data Curation for Sharing and Crisis Response

Episode 15 guest speaker, Professor Dame Angela McLean

Data Curation for Sharing and Crisis Response

with Professor Dame Angela McLean

Professor Dame Angela McLean is the Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK Ministry of Defence. She was appointed to the role in 2019. McLean is a Professor of Mathematical Biology in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University and Director of The Institute for Emerging Infections of Humans.

Episode 15: Data Curation for Sharing and Crisis Response

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

In this episode we speak with Professor Dame Angela McLean, the Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK Ministry of Defence. McLean shares her priorities in the role, from data curation for sharing to risk analysis, and lessons learned from responding to COVID-19. She discusses the importance of asking the right questions and integrating scientific expertise in government.

Listen to this episode on any of these podcast platforms:

Data curation for sharing & crisis response with Professor Dame Angela McLean

Professor Dame Angela McLean serves as the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) for the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) as well as a Professor of Mathematical Biology at Oxford University and Director of The Institute for Emerging Infections of Humans.

McLean shares her priorities in the role, from data curation for sharing to risk analysis. She highlights the importance of independent challenge functions of asking the right questions and integrating scientific expertise in government.



Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Ministry of Defence

McLean was appointed the CSA for the UK Ministry of Defence in September 2019.

“Here in the UK, we have a system where most of our government departments have an external chief scientific adviser. We tend to be people who’ve been working in academia or elsewhere who come in to be scientific advisers for a fixed amount of time…we come with an outsider’s eyes and sort of a career spent outside government, really knowing about science,” McLean explained.

“On Fridays, still, I’m an academic infectious disease modeler in Oxford University. And then four days a week I am the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence here in London,” McLean said.

Data curation for sharing

McLean has prioritized data sharing in her role as CSA.

“A large part, always of all of my working life, has been finding the relevant data and persuading people to share it with me,” McLean said.

“So, I came in saying what I would like to be different when I leave is that the Defence has figured out how to do data curation for sharing. I have to admit, I’ve modified that a bit now, I’ve come to see that will be a never-ending task. I’m now hoping that by the time I leave, we’ve made a really good start on that,” McLean explained.

Curation for sharing is more difficult than curation on its own, because when the data is shared, the metadata (the way the data is labeled) needs to be easily understood. This makes metadata the first focus of data curation for sharing.

“If I’m going to share my data with somebody, I have to have labeled in some way, so well that they will understand what I meant, not just what I say,” McLean clarified.

Multi-domain integration

McLean believes a strength of the Ministry of Defence is having clarity of priorities.

“One of our absolutely clear priorities is what we call multi-domain integration. And in my opinion, at least one of the most important tasks within multi-domain integration is data sharing across domains,” McLean explained.

“In Defence, when we say domains, we mean things like land, air, space, and so on, and a large part of that task to integrate those is to be able to share the right data at the relevant speed from one domain to an another and back again,” McLean continued.

Asking the right questions

McLean highlighted the importance of asking the right questions.

“I think there’s an interesting scientific piece there which is to do with, well, how do you make sure that the right questions are getting asked about what information do we need to share, why we are sharing it? Is there a better way to do this, rather than just recapitulating the old way of doing it, which was electronically?” McLean said.

Risk analysis

McLean describes risk as “thinking about things that might go wrong, how likely they are to go wrong, and then really what to do about it, if it did go wrong. I think that’s a terminology that could be more widely used across civil service.”

“It’s a really great way for senior management to reach down into the siloes of their science because that’s where the expertise will lie to really do that risk analysis and to find out what’s a hazard, who is exposed, who is vulnerable, and then across the whole suite of questions that come when you think about your motivation and management methods,” McLean said.

A call for more scientific expertise in government

“Long term, all of us need to think about how to get more science expertise right into the heart of government,” McLean shared.

Part of McLean’s role within the Ministry of Defence is to be an independent person who is operating as a challenge function, whether it be for scientific advice or for spending on technology or a transformation. She must ensure that the right questions are being asked and that the engineering and science advice is robust.

“It is nevertheless a balance, because essentially, if you are too much of a pain, people won’t listen to you. And I do think that’s one of the most interesting things about the job is finding that balance of being a trusted colleague and a critical friend,” McLean shared about her role.

Using the National Risk Register

McLean and her team took what they learned from the COVID-19 response to think more widely about risk management.

“Having had all those risks materialize, I think it’s a terrific moment now to say, hmm, what do we wish we’d done in advance to that one, what should we therefore now do in advance of all the others?” McLean shared.

“The strongest unifying strand is what dataflows must we have up and running on day minus one? Mclean asked, stating the importance of having these conversations now and how this ensures the public sector is “not starting at zero.”

“You have this experience where some of that data was available but not all of it at the moment that we needed it, so we talk about, right, what can you assume will be available? What do we have to work on now so that it will be available?” McLean shared.

“The lesson we learned from COVID is not only a pandemic preparedness lesson. It teaches us something about having a risk on a risk register at the beginning,” McLean said.

Data use during COVID-19 Pandemic

The Defence Science and Technology Lab (DSTL) stepped into the breach of difficult times in March 2020 when COVID-19 was spreading in the UK.

“We knew that we needed modeling, and so that’s my community, in order to figure out what was happening, how fast, how quickly we might expect our interventions to have any impact,” McLean explained.

Highly relevant data was being collected in the National Health Service (NHS), but the NHS was unable to share the data with academics.

“And into that gap steps DSTL statisticians and modelers and said we can be a data haven, we know all about anonymizing data. We can handle that side of it. We can handle the nondisclosure agreements, so this rather diverse set of academics can get permission to work on that data,” McLean shared.

“From that intervention…it became possible for large amounts of the relevant data to flow from the NHS, from Public Health England also, so that it could be properly analyzed in ways that allowed us to make better informed decisions about how we had to intervene and when, and I think that’s an inspirational application of actually what was military know-how to a civilian emergency,” McLean said.

Pacific Future Forum

The Pacific Future Forum is being led by the UK, bringing together both industry and governments from around the world and different perspectives into one place. Events like this are helping move conversations forward.

“The more we can work across our silos, the better,” McLean said. McLean will be speaking at the Pacific Future Forum in October.

To find out more:

Professor Dame Angela McLean – Chief Scientific Adviser

Learn more about how Microsoft supports Defense and Intelligence agencies

Learn more about the UK Ministry of Defence

Join Microsoft at Pacific Future Forum

About the Center of Expertise

Microsoft’s Public Sector Center of Expertise brings together thought leadership and research relating to digital transformation in the public sector. The Center of Expertise highlights the efforts and success stories of public servants around the globe, while fostering a community of decision makers with a variety of resources from podcasts and webinars to white papers and new research. Join us as we discover and share the learnings and achievements of public sector communities.

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