By Rebecca C Parrish, on 8 August 2019
By Bekki Parrish, PhD Candidate, Institute for Global Health
For the last three months I have been interning with the Centre for Science and Policy, at Cambridge University. This internship is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council as part of the Research Council Policy Internships Scheme. The scheme offers roughly 130 PhD students the opportunity to undertake an internship with one of 28 policy-facing partner institutions. The idea behind the scheme is to support research excellence and build researcher capability through a variety of advanced skills trainings, including policy-internships. From a personal perspective, I wanted to be part of the internship to both broaden my work experience, and because my research interests have strong relevance to policy-making. As such I feel that understanding and fostering science-policy networks is an integral part of my research career.
The policy institute I decided to apply for was the Centre for Science and Policy, or CSaP, part of Cambridge University. CSaP offers an intriguing insight into science for policy because they are not themselves a policy-making body, but rather a broker of policy-academic relationships. Their mission statement is to improve the use of evidence and expertise in public policy. Their approach is based on addressing the questions which policymakers identify, and on building relationships characterised by mutual understanding, respect and trust. To achieve this, CSaP runs a variety of events such as professional development workshops, policy roundtables, lectures, and fellowships for all levels of policy makers, both from within the civil service and from other public and private sector organisations. At each event they invite attendees from their expansive network of policy professionals and academics to bring together experts to discuss contemporary topics that are of interest to policymakers. They also support academics who are interested in communicating their research by fostering one-to-one relationships with relevant policy professionals and by helping researchers understand their pathways to impact.
Despite knowing nothing about the ins and outs of policy making, I had a gut feeling that maybe a career directly in policy making was not for me, so I decided that working from within CSaP offered the perfect alternative. CSaP provides a balance between seeing how policymakers engage with and use science in their policy making, whilst still sitting within an academic institution thus maintaining independence from the rigmarole of actual policy making.
Indeed, the insight offered by CSaP was very illuminating. Within one week I was rubbing shoulders with ex-head of the British civil service, Lord Richard Wilson, and helping run and partake in a professional development workshop, connecting early career researchers with government Science and Technology Fast Streamers (the British civil service’s terminology for high-potential, early career civil servants). I also supported several roundtable discussions with senior members of the government and cabinet office. Recurring topics on the UK government’s policy-makers agenda seem to be emerging technologies – such as artificial intelligence, cybercrime, quantum- and bio- technologies. Health was of course also high on the agenda, and I helped organise and run two workshops on air pollution, health and the future of transport for the Department of Transport. I also partook in a policy roundtable discussion about the future of synthetic biology technologies with members of the cabinet office.
The key takeaways I have from the internship include a much deeper insight into how government makes policy and the inner workings of the civil service. Not only do I now know the difference between a permanent secretary and a Minister (explain!) but I also have at least some appreciation for the language that civil servants use, and the ways in which individuals and departments interact with each other and, critically, with academic institutions, materials and individuals. What struck me the most, was how, at the end of the day, it all boils down to relationships between individuals. CSaP is built upon a network of individual researchers and policy makers and almost 100% of its operations are based on the principle of putting these individuals in a room together to work towards a common goal. Indeed, from my limited experience it appears that perhaps policy and strategy formation also operate this way. To me, this is simultaneously reassuring and slightly off-putting. It is reassuring to be reminded that our highly complex and increasingly technical society is still built on people to people relationships and governed accordingly. However, I was initially slightly worried by the inherently fallible nature of relying on personal relationships to make policy. I’m not only talking about the classical risks of nepotism, bias and corruption, but also about the shortfalls this has based on the limits of your network. For example, researchers from developing nations or lesser known universities will have considerably less opportunity to communicate their research, regardless of how advantageous to policy it may be. Perhaps this is where institutions such as CSaP and other policy affiliates such as the UCL Public Policy department can help step in and support researchers get the soapbox platform they need in order for their research to have policy impact.
The impact of this internship on my research has been to reinforce my desire to not only deliver high quality research and publications in scientific journals (as all PhD students know we are pushed to do), but to dedicate more time to real-world impacts of my research via the individual relationships I forge. This is not merely an excuse to procrastination by going to more lectures, drinks receptions and conferences (basically anything to put off actually writing my thesis!) but is an essential part of a modern-day PhD. I believe that all PhD students should be encouraged to think sincerely and at length about what their pathways to impact may be, and how to work towards them. Universities should support this wherever possible, for example through offering policy internships, support for students from respective public policy departments, and by creating a culture where extra-curricular activities rather than only research and academic publications valued.
To that end, I am extremely grateful to UCL, Brunel university (my co-institution), NERC (my funders) and CSaP, for my internship opportunity. To any fellow PhD students and early-career researchers reading this blog: I thank you for your time and interest; I cheerlead you to keep up the great work – despite how difficult we all know it to be; and I implore you to keep going and to nurture your relationships, both professional and personal – to keep yourself sane and happy, and to push for real-world impact of your research outside of academia.
Bekki is a PhD student on the London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, studying the impacts of climate change on human migration patterns with the Centre for Climate Change and Health at IGH and the College of Health and Life Sciences at Brunel University.