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Early career researchers discuss the benefits of building connections between science and policy

19 October 2016

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Reported by Ryan Hamnett, MRC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (September - December 2016)

The interface between scientific research and policy making can often be difficult to negotiate, with both sides being subject to different pressures. On the research side, the pressure to “publish or perish” dominates the thoughts of many academics striving to make exciting discoveries within their chosen fields, while policy makers must find economical solutions to societal problems while dealing with a shifting political landscape.

The Centre for Science and Policy recently held a workshop in Wolfson College aimed at helping early career researchers traverse this interface, with Policy Fellow alumnus John Parkinson (Department for Transport) and Dr James Woodcock (Centre for Diet and Activity Research; CEDAR) providing their experiences of science-policy interactions.

Following an introduction by Chair Nicola Buckley (Associate Director, CSaP), John Parkinson described his experiences as a Policy Fellow, during which time he was leading the then government’s consultation on adding capacity at Heathrow airport. The meetings he had with academics as part of his Fellowship were aimed at helping to develop the Aviation Policy Framework. He explained that the academic disciplines he encountered were varied, from psychology to engineering, and that they provided diverse perspectives which were essential in broadening his thoughts about the project. Despite not providing complete solutions, these meetings did ultimately influence the establishment of an independent airports commission.

Dr James Woodcock focused on the challenges of interacting with policy from an academic outlook, within the context of a tool developed by his group and funded by the Department for Transport. He highlighted that particular points of difficulty existed in gaining the contract initially, which universities are not well set up to do, and dealing with changing deadlines and political priorities, which research groups rarely have the capacity to accommodate. His presentation finished with advice for academics when interacting with policy makers, emphasising that the importance of personal relations and that “governments are not monolithic”.

The workshop concluded with a lively Q&A session addressing a variety of issues. These included whether a lack of science-policy interactions was an individual issue or an institutional issue, and how policy makers access research on a daily basis.

The topic of early career researchers gaining experience in the policy profession was also addressed. Policy internships, such as those funded by RCUK at CSaP and POST, were described as an excellent way to sample a career in policy, and skills such as communication to lay audiences were essential for such a career.

CSaP would like to thank the ESRC DTC at Cambridge for supporting this workshop.

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John Parkinson

Department for Transport (DfT)

Dr James Woodcock

Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR)