Richard Tomsett: Case study

at Newcastle University

PhD Student, School of Computing Science, Newcastle University
BBSRC Policy Intern (April - July 2013), Centre for Science and Policy

Scientists often complain about the use or abuse of scientific evidence in policy making, so when the opportunity to do a policy placement arose, I jumped at the chance to find out more about policy from inside the system, away from academia's somewhat sneering attitudes. I'm very glad I did.

CSaP provided a great environment to do my placement. It is quite small, so you have a chance to make a tangible impact, as well as really feeling like part of the team. The work was very varied - one day I would be interviewing Policy Fellows in London, the next helping out with a conference or workshop, the next writing a summary of the workshop discussions, the next working out the best way to analyse the data CSaP has gathered during the Policy Fellowships programme. CSaP's workshops in particular were fantastic. I met experts from both research and policy backgrounds, and listened to their discussions on some of the most important current policy challenges (for example, alleviating poverty, the housing crisis, and nanotechnology). I felt that I learned an awful lot about the challenges policy-makers face: science rarely provides a clear solution to a problem, and a multitude of non-scientific factors are always in play. I also spent a day shadowing a civil servant working in the cabinet office – an opportunity that arose from meeting them at a workshop. This gave me a really valuable view of day-to-day work in the civil service, the problems faced in different departments, and how they are going about addressing these problems.

My main project over the three months was to analyse the unstructured data gathered about the Policy Fellows' research interests and interactions. CSaP's excellent connections within the university meant that help was easy to find, and I had several meetings with researchers in the Cambridge Computer Lab to discuss the best approaches for automated analysis. It was great to be able to use my background in network analysis in a novel area; I felt like I was contributing something different as well as benefitting from working at CSaP.

I left CSaP with a much clearer view of the policy process: who is involved, how research can be used in policy making, and the challenges faced both in the civil service and in industry. I will remain in research at least in the short-term, but the knowledge, skills and contacts I gained working at CSaP will prove useful however my future career pans out. I would thoroughly recommend doing a placement here if you have the chance.