Professional development for early-career scientists

9 May 2019

Reported by Alexis Belessiotis-Richards, EPSRC-funded Policy Intern (April-July 2019)

CSaP held two professional development workshops to expose early-career researchers to the role science plays in government decision-making and how academics can interact with policy makers.

The first workshop was held on 30 April and started with an afternoon session in the Postdoctoral Centre at Eddington where we were joined by Dr Alex Churchill and Victoria Honour. Dr Churchill introduced the attendees to how policy is made into law within Parliament and how government formulates policy, in particular stressing how policies are evaluated and reviewed after their implementation.

Victoria gave us an introduction to her experience as a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) Fellow and her work with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Commitee. Discussion revolved around how government must balance political will with evidence-based policy decisions.

We then headed over to the Babraham Institute to kick-off the day's second event, where we were welcomed by Professor Michael Wakelam and Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser. Professor Leyser gave us her take on working across the interface of science and policy. In particular, she mentioned three distinct ways science and policy can interact:

  • Policy for Science, e.g.: how should research be funded in the UK?
  • Science for Policy, e.g.: what regulations should exist for human genome editing?
  • Science in Policy, e.g.: how can data analytics and modeling be used to inform policy?

These three themes could be useful for early-career researchers in thinking about how they can engage with policy makers. Pairing schemes and policy internships were also mentioned as great oppportunities for scientists to gain insight into the world of policy.

The following day we held two panel discussions covering how academics can interact with policy-makers and then how policy-makers make use of academic research in their decision-making process. Professor James Wood, Dr John Liddicoat and Dr Megan Eldred joined us for the first panel to discuss how scientists can engage policy makers - using examples of bovine tuberculosis and the legal framework for genetic engineering. A second panel with Elen Shepard, Dr Anna Ruddock and Matthew Tait discussed their experience implemeting scientifc research into policy decisions. The panel focussed on inclusiveness, global policy considerations and bovine tuberculosis from a policy perspective this time.

Following the panels and discussions, early-career attendees worked in teams to prepare policy recommendations on current issues relating to the life sciences. They presented their recommendations to our panelists who role-played as exectutive policy makers and gave them feedback. Early-career researchers were given a chance to think outside of their own research area and exercise breadth in tackling policy issues. These group exercises are great ways for scientists to experience the complexity of policy advising as well as work with researchers from different backgrounds.

One of the key take-home messages from these two events was that working in policy requires extremely rapid, clear and consise communication. Furthermore, the team exercises reinforced how different policy advice can be to how scientific problems are tackled. Indeed, scientific advisers often lack data and are under pressure to make recommendations at short notice. This may be anathema to most scientists who might recommend that "more research is needed", but the world of policy requires a more pragmatic mind set where risk and uncertainty must be communicated clearly.

And in particular, as repeated by almost all the academics present, working in policy is lots of fun!