Case study 2023: Dan Shah

Director of Investment Strategy and Systems Insight, UKRI

Dan Shah is the Director of Investment Strategy and Systems Insight for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Here he reflects on his experience as a CSaP Policy Fellow, and how engaging with CSaP's network has been insightful and helpful to his work.

When I started my Fellowship, I was the Director of Research and Policy Insight at the British Council. I am now the Director of Investment Strategy and Systems Insight for UKRI, which is the principal government funder of R&D in the UK. My role at UKRI is to think about our organisational strategy, with a responsibility to invest public money as wisely as possible and help the R&D system thrive. This includes optimising the impact of our investments across a range of portfolios, from promoting Britain’s place in the world to protecting the environment.

What is unique about the CSaP Fellowship is the opportunity to have conversations with people who have had extraordinarily complex ‘double lives’ in both academic and public capacities.

Many of the experts I met at Cambridge had previous experience in a senior public role – either as a politician, a minister, or chief scientist – while some had come from an entrepreneurial background. This was tremendously valuable as they already understood the distinction between the academic perfection of my policy questions, and their applicability to policy contexts and the speed and limited bandwidth that comes with it.

Being able to have these kinds of conversations is quite rare. For example, in my meeting with Lord Chris Smith – Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge – he was able to relay experiences from when he was a culture minister that were highly relevant to my then work at the British Council on soft power, and how we operate in a complicated geostrategic environment. Meeting with Professor Dame Sally Davies – Master of Trinity College, Cambridge – and hearing her reflections on her experiences as a Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer in government, was also incredibly insightful.

It’s also striking how much of the learning that I took away remained applicable despite me having two very different jobs during the Fellowship. This is mainly because some of the key lessons can apply in many places. The Fellowship encouraged me to reflect on widely relevant issues such as ‘how do you manage complex, non-linear dynamic systems?’ and ‘how do you make long-term changes in the context of political demands that are very short term and specific?’.

The Fellowship provided a safe space for intellectual exchanges where I could extract expertise about issues critically important to my work.

While I have had regular contact with academics as part of my current role at UKRI and in my previous role at the British Council, through the Fellowship I was able to experience the ‘cohort effect’ of being taken off the dance floor of the day job and placed into a different environment. Without the CSaP Policy Fellowship, I would probably have met far fewer academics over a far longer period of time. I really valued the opportunity of being immersed in such a concentrated diversity of thought.

One of the most undervalued benefits of meeting academics is that it enables you to get the policy question right.

The marketplace for solutions to policy problems is highly asymmetric – policy makers don’t know what they don’t know, and academics know far too much for policy makers to digest. By spending one-to-one time with academics, you can establish whether you are even asking the right question, and only then proceed to boil down the key issues and distil a huge amount of learning from a common starting point. That's why the CSaP Fellowship allows policy makers to think more deeply and concisely about what they are trying to achieve and the outcomes they are hoping for.