Nanotechnology policy: practical advice for early-career researchers

7 June 2013


Report by Richard Tomsett, BBSRC-Funded CSaP Policy Intern (April 2013 - July 2013)

On 3 June, CSaP partnered with the Cambridge NanoDTC and the Royal Society of Chemistry to host a career development day for PhD students interested in nanotechnology policy.

The workshop had three main aims: to introduce how public policy is informed by research and how policy affects what research is done; to explore how the work of early-career researchers can contribute to public policy; and to provide advice to improve interactions between science and policy.

Chaired by CSaP Executive Director, Dr Robert Doubleday, a panel of distinguished academics presented their experiences in providing scientific advice to policy makers. One of the panellists described his time as a senior strategic adviser for nanotechnology for the EPSRC, during which time he helped establish several nanotechnology Doctoral Training Centres, as well as setting up nanotechnology ‘grand challenges’ to stimulate research into the use of nanotechnology in healthcare and food.

Another panel member stressed the need to develop a common language to enable clearer communication between nanotechnology scientists working in very specific areas, policy makers and the public.

A third panelist described his work as a member of the EPSRC Strategic Advisory Team for Physical Sciences, noting that while it can be easy for scientists to become disenchanted with the research councils, they (research councils) have a difficult job to do, and need the support of scientists to make the case for science in government.

During the group exercise, attendees were given a hypothetical challenge – to redesign the UK’s nanotechnology strategy, outlining its purpose and scope, who should be involved, who would be responsible for implementing it, and how success would be measured. Chaired by Dr Jessica Bland from Nesta, some unique ideas were presented to a panel of policy officials from GO Science, Defra and NPL. These included: managing the relationship between industry and academia, ensuring skills development, engaging with the public, keeping the UK competitive, and how to present the strategy to different stakeholders.

Responding to these ideas, one policy panelist offered his perspective as Head of Health and Environment at the Government Office for Science. He described the main aspects of policy as growth, risk, and public engagement, noting that while the UK was keen to encourage growth in high-tech industries, some other EU countries were more concerned with the risks, and only a small minority of the public was confident about what nanotechnology means.

Another panellist noted that the EU was confident that current food and health regulations were generally sufficient to cover use of nanomaterials, which helped with Defra’s focus on growth. She also mentioned that it was difficult to make safety recommendations based on current research, because different studies use different measurements of risk.

The final panelist described his previous work as a science policy adviser at Which?, where he played a role in the assessment of nanoparticles for use in sunscreens, as well as his current work at the National Physical Laboratory.

Each speaker offered some general advice to early-career researchers wanting to engage more with policy making, highlighting the importance of communications skills – such as the ability to communicate complex ideas to a non-specialist audience, making contacts and being passionate about their research – as well as taking up secondments, internships and work shadowing opportunities.

Overall, the day was seen as a great success with attendees at the workshop commenting that they felt encouraged to “get more involved in the policy process” and to “explore secondment opportunities”.

To see the full list of speakers, please click on the event in the right hand panel.

The next Professional Development Policy Workshop will take place on 8 November 2013 in partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Banner image courtesy of soychemist on Flickr