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PhD Episode II: The Return of Ethnographic Methods

laurent.liote.1916 December 2021

Hi there, it’s been a while! I guess I’ve made some progress since the last time I wrote a post like this one. Rest assured the aim of my PhD has not changed, I’m still focused on understanding how engineering advice and related modelling insights are deployed in energy policy practice (the origin story can be found here). This post is about the initial work I’ve done to answer this question and where I’m going next.

In a UK government department not so far away…

So, what have I been up to in the last year then? Well, I did an initial case study with an engineering advice team within the UK government that provides advice on energy policy questions to the rest of their department. I interviewed engineers and policy advisors working together to gain insight into ‘the engineering-policy interface’ (a fancy way of saying ‘how engineers and policy advisors interact’). I turned the themes that emerged from the interviews into academic database search terms which returned four different strands of literature: science advice, engineering and philosophy, expertise in policy and models as boundary objects. I carried out a review of these fields and compared the literature’s conclusions against my findings, I call that ‘PhD Episode I’.

And what did I make of Episode I then? Like a first episode in what I hope to be a trilogy, it was interesting, set up the characters and storyline nicely but left quite a few questions unanswered. From what I saw, most of the engineering advice consisted of explaining a technology in layman’s terms to policy analysts, answering a question by providing a summary/diagram or designing/running a model. But that’s just scratching the surface and several findings warrant further investigation, constituting the basis for my second case study: Episode II.

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Doing science advice well can enhance the soft power of a nation or city

arthurpetersen19 March 2021

The topic of ‘science advice’ – broadly defined here as practices involving individuals, organisations and structures that mobilise natural and social scientific and engineering knowledge into public decision-making – has been studied from many different angles in UCL STEaPP. Over the past seven years, UCL STEaPP has led two high-impact workshops and several research projects dedicated to charting the phenomenon, studying the activities, actors and institutions involved.

Entrance to Tottenham Court Road building

Tottenham Court Road, where one of the STEaPP workshops on science advice was held

A whole array of findings have been arrived at and summarised in this period, and I have dedicated an earlier blog nearly four years ago to what we can learn from our and others’ research for the capacities for dealing with complex and uncertain evidence. More recently, I addressed the interconnections between science, technology and ‘soft power’ – with the latter term referring to the ability to shape the preferences of others not through use of force or payments but by subtler means, which are often hard to pin down – giving the examples of how investments in water and space engineering are contributing to soft power for the Netherlands the United Arab Emirates, respectively.

In this blog, a few of the results that have been obtained are briefly reviewed, mainly with an eye to a new research angle that is of increasing interest to me and others in the department: How can doing science advice well, in a way that benefits societies, contribute to the soft power of a nation or city?

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Understanding Engineering Advice in Policy Practice

laurent.liote.1920 August 2020

Laurent Liote is a first year PhD student at UCL STEaPP. He is also a member of the 21st Century Decision Making research unit. Follow him on LinkedIn (Laurent Liote) and twitter (@LaurentLiote).

“So, what’s your PhD on again?”

What is the worst question you can ask a PhD student? You guessed it, the classic “so what’s your topic then?”. I generally mumble academic buzzwords for three minutes before looking at my confused interlocutor and concluding: “Huh, basically political science”. So, this post is my attempt at clearly explaining what my research is about, and by extension what the next three years of my life will look like.

My research interest was sparked by something I read in the 2018 National Infrastructure Commission report (yes, I read those for fun): “policy design [is to be] embedded into the engineering-driven culture of infrastructure planning”. This raises several questions, what is an engineering-driven culture and what does that mean for engineering expertise in the policy process? More digging revealed that very little research had been done on engineering advice for policy; no one had systematically looked at why interactions between engineering experts and other policy officials happen the way they do and what that means for the policy process.

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