Reported by Anthony Lindley, CSaP Policy Intern (February-May 2021)
What skills and values are required for a successful career in government? How can doctoral students transition into policymaking?
On 26 February 2021, the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) hosted the fourth seminar in the ‘Being Heard’ seminar series, a professional development programme for PhD students within the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Students were joined by invited guests including doctoral researcher Fleur Nash, Dr Rachel Cooper (Strategy Director, Cabinet Office) and Nicola Buckley (Associate Director of CSaP).
Opening the event, Dr Cooper shared her story of transitioning to the civil service after having completed a PhD in Volcanology at Cambridge and highlighted the academic collaborations she has had the opportunity to be involved with throughout her time in government thus far. Dr Cooper entered government through the Civil Service Fast Stream, a programme designed to enable skilled graduates to enter the policymaking world in areas that suit their discipline and interests. Students asked about her experience of the process and Dr Cooper highlighted the differences between independent, contemplative doctoral research and the team-based, time-limited nature of government work.
Asked whether her quantitative background was relevant to her work within policymaking, Dr Cooper underlined the importance of asking the right questions and having the ability to interpret their answers. There is a particular push within government at present to increase the numerical reasoning and statistical abilities of those within the civil service. Within the Cabinet Office reliable, descriptive metrics are of the utmost importance for informing effective decision-making and the presentation covered work which re-evaluated the criteria used to determine citizens’ fuel poverty as part of the Hills Fuel Poverty Review.
Dr Cooper is a job-sharer, working as part of a team with Beth Chaudhary; and the dynamics, challenges, and benefits of job-sharing within a policy setting were of particular interest to students, who asked about the relationship building and trust needed. “For a job share to work you need to have shared values, shared ambition and complete trust between the two people operating the job-share”, Dr Cooper emphasised.
Themes of communication, honesty and trust were echoed by the event’s second speaker, Fleur Nash (PhD Student within the Department of Geography). Ms Nash presented her experience of carrying out her doctoral research within a Knowledge Exchange Studentship which allows her to work with the conservation NGO Flora and Fauna International in Kenya. Throughout the course of her research, she examines the participation of and cooperation between a variety of stakeholders both within FFI and externally, including smallholder farmers and pastoralists, conservation practitioners and local government.
Ms Nash’s PhD both critically examines FFI’s working practices and actively experiments with changes which seek to improve the conservancy’s effectiveness, thus operating within the framework of ‘action research’. Stressing her aim to ‘go beyond critique’ and to put research into practice, Ms Nash spoke on the benefits of consistent, transparent, and reflective conversation with her project partners and of building trust-based relationships. Students asked about the challenges of making findings to which FFI might be hostile and whether she had already faced resistance against her proposals; while this had not yet occurred, and Ms Nash indicated that this is always a possibility within her type of research and that it is important to remain clearheaded and open about potential disagreements.
The importance of timeliness was emphasised by both speakers: Dr Cooper underlined the importance of appreciating political and funding cycles to the success or failure of policy initiatives, while Ms Nash spoke of the compressed timelines within which she needs to operate compared to those found within academia.