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Britain wants Talent: Will AI whizzes switch to the public sector?

"More and more of the people we speak to want the opportunity to use their skills for the benefit of others"

The UK government is on a hiring spree, with one singular goal – to cement its AI policy leadership. Last week, the government introduced the AI Safety Institute (AISI) and put out job adverts inviting applications from strategists, scientists and engineers. With salaries ranging from £85,000 to £135,000, these gigs are more lucrative than your regular civil services position.

(The average civil servant salary in London just about touches £39,000.)

But will the government manage to poach AI/ML talent from the private sector on with talk of "mission"? That remains to be seen.

AI researchers have been raking in the big bucks since before the ChatGPT boom. In 2018, The New York Times reported that OpenAI was paying its researchers over $1 million. These numbers are likely to have only gone up.

Recently posted roles at OpenAI and DeepMind (a Google subsidiary) did not disclose offered pay, but said that remuneration would be "competitive" with perks.

See also: AI predictions for 2024?

Speaking to The Stack, Ellie O’Shea, Managing Consultant at Trident Search; said that the decision to switch from private sector to government wouldn't necessarily be about money for techies.

"Of course, it’s no secret that public sector salaries lag behind those in the private sector. Within the Civil Service there is strict banding on salaries and consultant day rates, so pay and opportunities for progression compare unfavourably to roles in big corporations."

She also noted that not always getting the chance to work with the latest technology, frameworks or processes might deter some professionals from applying.

"However, that’s not to say there aren’t real benefits to government work too. Often the projects you’ll be joining last for long cycles of 12-18 months, so there’s a lot more security and longevity in this kind of work."

Additionally, applicants also tend to go through SC or DV clearance for roles which benefit their future career opportunities by increasing their value to a company, in turn helping them to achieve a higher salary on future projects, O'Shea explained.

With the AISI adverts, it is obvious that the government is trying to make room around these set bands- with base band salaries being supplemented with generous allowances.

For example, while the Safeguard Analysis Lead at AISI is offered a base salary of 54,710k as determined by the centrally controlled bands, an additional 50,290k - 80,290k is offered as allowance. Perks including pension allowances over £14,000 and hybrid working are also offered as part of the job advert.

O'Shea noted that it was not unrealistic to expect the AI Safety Institute to attract people from the private sector.

"More and more of the people we speak to want the opportunity to use their skills for the benefit of others. We’re also seeing more roles on offer than ever before, with large projects requiring big teams from across the security landscape, so there’s no shortage of opportunity for people wanting to make the move," she said of the current mindset of those looking for new roles in technology.

"It’s all about candidate motivations; often the public sector projects we support are critical to national security or have a tangible impact on our society."