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Scientists and policy makers advise early-career researchers

1 November 2012

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Communicate, join networks, develop lasting relationships and build trust: these were just some of the recommendations put forward by a distinguished line-up of computer scientists and policy makers at the CSaP Professional Development Policy Workshop for early-career technology researchers on 31 October. They described how and why they became involved in policy development, the kinds of issues they’ve advised on, and the challenges they have faced.

Those attending the workshop were keen to learn more about the policy process from two perspectives – the scientists who advise government, and the policy professionals who regularly engage with the academic community.

Chairing the first session, Dr Tristram Riley-Smith, CSaP Visiting Fellow and specialist in defence, security and infrastructure protection in Whitehall, spoke about his own research into the relationship between academia and the National Security community, aimed at promoting a better understanding of the two worlds, improving the quality of communication, and building trust.

Professor Ian Leslie (Professor of Computer Science at Cambridge) described how trust could be achieved over time through extended relationships and ongoing communication: “It’s about developing relationships”, he said, “not making pitches.” Although, as he pointed out, deciding who and at what level to engage with in government wasn’t straightforward and could take time to figure out. His advice to those in the early stages of their careers was to become part of a network and make use of more senior academics as a pathway into policy.

Professor Chris Hankin (Director of the Institute for Security Science and Technology at Imperial College London) discussed the important role that Chief Scientific Advisers play in providing advice to government, and their reliance on a wider network of experts for support. He advised the audience to make themselves known to the right people in government and learn how to convey messages in a language they would understand – “poor communication,” he said, “was one of the main barriers to putting science at the heart of government.”

Professor Muffy Calder (Government Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland ) described how, during her career as a computer scientist, she has learned to produce briefing documents, and present key issues and arguments to government, in a clear language. Her advice to early-career researchers who want to communicate their research to a government audience was to be unafraid to state the obvious; to think about how their work fits into the bigger picture; to work from first principles; to use examples to provide clarification; and to think about the problems of their audience, rather than their own.

David Cotterill (Cabinet Office) is responsible for developing the UK Government’s IT strategy. He too emphasised the importance of building and having access to networks, describing how he had come across a group of experts at Bournemouth University by asking around and someone suggesting he try them. His advice to researchers was to decide early on in their careers whether they wanted to be policy advisers or policy makers, since there was a marked difference between the two.

Jim Norton (immediate Past President of BCS, and External Board Member of POST), a policy maker and an engineer, said that there was generally a poor understanding (by ministers) of science and scientific methods, and that science advice needed to be communicated in a language that could be understood by them. He also spoke of the need to build networks, mentioning the POST Fellowships which offer PhD students an opportunity to learn about the policy process and make useful contacts.

Michael Eaton (ICT Business Strategy & Planning, Welsh Government) started out as an engineer and spent 20 years working in the private sector before becoming a civil servant. He described policy making as a "team sport for all ages" and reiterated the importance of building trust and relationships.

Sally Howes (Director of ICT and Systems Analysis, National Audit Office) started out as a researcher at Cambridge, worked as a PhD student in US military operations, ran her own business, entered the civil service and then went on to work in the NAO. Having had such an interesting and varied career, Sally learned how to communicate effectively to a range of audiences.

The workshop gave early-career researchers an opportunity to discuss a number of questions related to the policy process with the speakers. Commenting on the workshop, Professor Muffy Calder said, "This was the first event I had attended that was explicitly concerned with the engagement of computer scientists and policy. It was also the first computer science-only panel concerning policy I have ever sat on. What a positive, pleasant, and informative experience! The young researchers who attended and took part in the breakout sessions (note, they were from various science disciplines) were very impressive: bright, informed and thoughtful. Altogether this was an excellent event and I hope there are more in future. I would urge my fellow researchers, both young and old(er), to attend."

The next Professional Development Policy Workshop will be held on 6 December at the Royal Academy of Engineering.


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