Katrina Williams: Case study

at Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT)

Director General International, Science and Resilience Group, Department of Energy and Climate Change

I am a policy maker and I’ve seen the light. I’ve had a long career as a civil servant, and have worked in both Defra and in DECC in recent years. So issues such as Bovine TB, neo-nicotinoids in pesticides, and fracking have all at various points come within my purview, and I’ve needed to understand enough about the science involved to be able to advise ministers. I’ve long been convinced of the value of good science in policy making. And as a policy maker, I completely depend on it.

My CSaP experience has helped me explore links from the civil service into academia. It is a terrifically powerful way in which academia can influence public policy. There’s an enormous role for academia to challenge civil servants by exploring options that the political limitations of civil service might not allow. Just good conversations and good communication between policy makers and academics can be immensely beneficial.

Through talking to academics at Cambridge I’ve found there is a great deal for us to learn about how collectively we communicate to the public: what science is, how you manage and mitigate risk—and through my fellowship I’ve had some incredibly valuable conversations about how to communicate really difficult things, like climate science, to people who are more worried about the price of a tin of beans in the supermarket.

Another realisation that I found very profound in my experience with CSaP is that, as policy makers, we are reductive. We have a terrible tendency to reduce for ministers all kinds of complex arguments to simplicity. My fellowship has taught me to step back from that and to value complexity, and learn to express it, rather than to attempt to reduce things to a single clear message.

To take one very specific example: we spent a fabulous day in Cambridge, looking at modelling, with lots of expert modellers from the university talking about what you need to bear in mind when dealing with models. Understanding the underpinning assumptions; understanding the confidence margins and the pitfalls of placing on a particular model questions and assumptions it was not designed to create. And I was then able to feed what I learned into a modellers' group in my department, which comprises quite a lot of policymakers.

I am immensely grateful to CSaP for the opportunity that it’s given me, and grateful to the many academics who talked to me and listened to my questions during my fellowship. I am a big fan of us all continuing with this endeavour, and keeping up that very fine tradition of asking each other questions to unlock some of the really big problems we face.