The government is finding it difficult to attract experienced data scientists to work in Whitehall, according to Paul Maltby, director of data at the Government Digital Service.
Maltby told the Science and Technology Committee, which is looking into big data use in government, that Whitehall has not had any difficulty recruiting data scientists at an early stage in their careers but that "affording people later in their career is somewhat difficult".
Retaining data scientists could also be a problem as the more experience they gain in government, the more likely they are likely to be poached by private sector firms that can offer more money.
However, Maltby explained that existing analysts have been on a development scheme during which they "learned to use some of the [data scientists'] tools and techniques". Whether this means they can adequately replace data scientists in the long-term is questionable.
The specialist role of the data scientist has been the subject of much debate over the past few years. Some in the IT industry see it as a marketing term for the role of data analyst, while others believe it describes a rare breed of IT professionals who are experts in mathematics, statistics and data analysis, and have experience in writing algorithms.
The ultimate aim for the government, according to Maltby, is to spread data science capability, knowledge and skills very broadly across Whitehall.
"A world where government departments and public agencies had already fixed their data infrastructure in a way that made it interoperable and fluid so that they had fabulous data sites and capabilities integrated within the decision-making processes and services for citizens as a matter of course would be a fabulous thing, and it is something we are aiming towards," he told the committee.
But the committee said in its Big Data Dilemma report that, while the government has a range of initiatives to develop computing and digital skills in the UK, the wider set of big data skills is not being strategically addressed.
This could leave UK businesses unable to grow the big data sector at the necessary pace.
It recommended that the government should commit to a "continuing substantial role" in developing data analytics skills with others already working in this field. There should be more big data training for staff in government departments, and the application of big data at local government level should be promoted more extensively.
"The government must also address the wider context of its policies on apprenticeships and immigration control. As it develops its approach in these areas, it should explicitly address widespread concerns that these could jeopardise the necessary big data skills base that the UK will increasingly need," the committee said.
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