Professional Development Policy Seminar for Biologists

11 November 2011


This write-up was provided by workshop participant Fiona Docherty.

"The seminar was very effective and informative. Now I have a better view of policy making and the importance of better communication and engagement. I also have more ideas about what to do after my PhD!"

"A highly informative day. I am leaving this place empowered and clearly know that my role in society is relevant."

11 November saw CSaP host its second professional development seminar for early career biologists. The day-long seminar offered insights into the opportunities, and the associated challenges, for university academics to engage in science policy at the level of UK government. Fifty delegates, all early stage researchers from a variety of disciplines, gathered at the Society of Biology in London for a day that promised to be interesting and inspiring for those embarking on careers in biological science.

The day kicked off with presentations from a panel of academics who had direct experience of the policy-making process. The presenters were all highly respected academics from diverse biological backgrounds. In addition to their academic success, each was motivated to liaise with government and media, to inform public policy.

The speakers entertained the attendees with their individual stories, describing how they had become involved in science policy and the ways in which they had adapted to their roles. A recurring and striking theme was that though few had actively sought roles in policy, all had enjoyed and valued the positions that they hold today. Each was emphatic on the importance of involving scientific experts in policy decisions.

Controversial subjects faced by biologists were addressed by several presenters. Professor Clive Page described his use of the media to promote his work on animal research policies, while living under threat from anti-vivisectionist groups. Professor Christopher Whitty spoke candidly on the difficulties of maintaining a competitive academic career while also working in policy. This is a more mundane, but no less important, issue faced by all researchers who seek to broaden their influence.

Attendees were impressed by the engaging nature of the speakers’ presentations, and participated enthusiastically in the question and answer session that ensued. Many continued the discussion over lunch.

The afternoon session consisted of group discussions amongst the early career researchers. Each group debated the importance of the scientist in the policy process. They addressed questions that ranged from the role of evidence in policy making, to the best way for a scientist to engage with policy makers. In addition, each group was given the task of highlighting three things that they would change about the current policy process. The group sessions were very successful and provoked lively discussion on topics that many of the attendees had not considered, in depth, before. At the end of the discussion period, a speaker from each group was appointed to feedback its conclusions to a panel of policy makers.

In the final session of the day, the panel of policy makers were introduced and responded to the points raised by the discussion groups. The issues of time constraints, transparency and referral to scientific experts were discussed in depth.

Each of the policy makers gave a presentation that described their various career paths and shared the aspects of their jobs that they found enjoyable or challenging. Again, the audience was impressed by the openness and honesty of the panellists when answering questions and reflecting on their field as a whole.

The overwhelming message of the session was that scientists and policy makers should work to cultivate close relationships. The key for young biologists who wish to enter the world of policy making, is to gain direct experience from appropriate internships and work experience placements.

An informative and inspiring day was rounded off with a networking session, giving the attendees an enjoyable opportunity to engage with the panellists who were more than happy to offer advice and encouragement.

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