Case study 2023: Simon Strickland

Senior Adviser on Strategy in the Cabinet Office

Simon Strickland is a Senior Adviser on Strategy in the International Economic Unit of the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, and a CSaP Continuing Policy Fellow. Here, he describes how the Fellowship has both enhanced his professional growth and influenced policy making in Whitehall.

I first joined the programme as a CSaP Policy Fellow in 2015, and later became a Continuing Fellow. During this time, my work at the Cabinet Office has primarily involved national security strategy in the widest sense and, among other topics, more specifically that of natural resource security.

Until recently I have been coordinating strategic policy development across Whitehall in the field of “critical minerals”. These have great importance for global challenges such as climate change mitigation and renewable energy development, but also in a range of other sectors of the global economy. In such a cross-cutting field, policy making necessarily wrestles with varied approaches to the intricate balance between securing these resources throughout the value chain, fostering sustainable practices, setting international standards, and navigating the geopolitical complexities of global supply chains. Efforts to address these complex policy issues benefit from a forward-looking approach that combines a grasp of cutting-edge research, data-driven insights, and collaborative endeavours across multiple disciplines. In such a context, academic engagements at CSaP can confer benefits well beyond the immediate application of research to policy, complex as this is, to illuminate deeper philosophical questions raised by efforts to set major policy priorities across populations worldwide.

One area of importance in this field is the use of big data to analyse supply chains.

Varied engaging discussions with University of Cambridge experts from the Institute of Manufacturing, the Faculty of Economics, and the Department of Engineering have provided significant insights into how “big data” can illuminate complex economic dynamics at the national and international levels. For instance, research by Professor Vasco Carvalho and his colleagues has demonstrated the impressive power of financial transaction data to elucidate the ripple effects of events like the Fukushima disaster across Japan’s economy, while other studies have been able to identify supply chain networks and risk-related bottlenecks for a major global multinational company. These examples illustrate the potentially transformative value of large-scale data-related insights for policy-making.

Connections fostered through CSaP can result in a chain reaction of unexpected opportunities.

For example, my discussions with Dr Mukesh Kumar – Lecturer in Operations Management at Cambridge – brought to light shared connections with a colleague in another Government department and subsequently, an opportunity to attend a two-day international workshop on the use of “big data” and artificial intelligence in supply chain mapping and analysis. Participating in this workshop expanded my perspective on the scope for analysis of supply chain dynamics, catalysed new ideas for evidence-based policy interventions at the global level, and has led to further active engagement at the science-policy interface.

"Academic expertise is important not because it tells me what policy to recommend, but rather what is theoretically possible – and in practice, possible to do if you have the right kinds of conditions, the right kinds of access to data, and the right kinds of analytical capability to use it.”

Another example is the conversations with Professor Julian Allwood – Professor of Engineering and the Environment at Cambridge – in which we discussed approaches to risk assessment at the level of complex technologies such as jet engines, and at the national level analysis of the advanced circular economy of steel. A paper co-authored by Julian introduced me to innovative use of Bayesian statistical analytical techniques in material flow analysis, which I have found helpful in wider policy discussions with colleagues in Whitehall and beyond. With the benefit of hindsight, the initial connection through CSaP enabled me at a relatively early stage to recognise some of the implications of this family of techniques for certain areas of policy-making.

Through the CSaP Fellowship, I’ve been able to access high-quality research publications, which has been extremely valuable across a wide spectrum of often cross-cutting issues.

The academics I’ve had the pleasure to meet one-on-one have illustrated their wide-ranging expertise across topics of relevance both domestically and internationally. Lorand Bartels – a Professor of International Law at Cambridge – recommended Cedric Ryngaert’s book Selfless Intervention: The exercise of jurisdiction in the common interest (OUP, 2020), which has had a profound impact on my understanding of topical debates in international law and the conceptualisation of global public goods in international trade. Through CSaP’s wider network, discussion with Ilaria Espa of the Università della Svizzera italiana introduced me to her book Export restrictions on critical minerals and metals. Testing the adequacy of WTO disciplines (CUP, 2015) - a comprehensive and authoritative study with many direct and indirect implications for those looking both to understand and to develop policy in this currently topical field. This influence has in turn shaped how I approach policy debates, helping me navigate uncertainties and possibilities more effectively. For our External Speakers series, I have invited several experts from Cambridge – including Lorand Bartels and CSaP’s own Associate Director, Nicola Buckley – to illustrate productive interplay between expertise in government and in the academic research communities. Such engagement has been a consistently positive activity which underscores the importance of incorporating external perspectives to foster a well-rounded, up-to-date and evidence-based approach to policy-making.

“In a world of uncertainty and limited information, insights from CSaP have a ripple effect on shaping a more informed policy landscape and nurturing a research-oriented mindset that drives meaningful change in government.”

It can help to have a “research mentality” to be able to formulate uncertainties in the landscape and, with those uncertainties, opportunities for development of constructive policy options.

The CSaP Policy Fellows Network has facilitated expansive problem definition, scope for engagement in problem-solving, and a significant level of knowledge-exchange among Fellows who are passionate about bridging academia and public policy. Engaging in roundtable discussions, events and workshops hosted by CSaP has enhanced my perception of professionalism in policy-making across Whitehall departments. The Policy Fellow programme provides an unusual space for open, critical and uninhibited exchange of ideas, challenging my preconceptions, and encouraging a multi-dimensional approach to policy. Contributions of CSaP Policy Fellows to debate are also appreciated by the research community, as they can provide a broader perspective and help to bridge the gaps that can inadvertently emerge in academic environments with a vast array of philosophical and scientific priorities.