A researcher’s experience of working in science policy
By Vivienne C Watson, on 20 May 2015
Javier Elkin, PhD student in Translational Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL took a 6 month break from his PhD to work in science policy at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). He explains how he benefited from this experience below.
How did I get the role:
I was always interested in Science Policy but didn’t know how to find out more about what it entailed. I attended two UCL Careers events which gave me the confidence to apply for a secondment during my PhD. The Newton’s Apple workshop at the Houses of Parliament provided an introduction to the different roles of government departments and politicians. At the UCL Careers Future in Government and Policy Employer Forum for PhDs and Researchers I had the chance to meet people from different policy organisations that helped me explore the different possibilities to funding the months away from my PhD.
What I liked about working in my role:
I enjoyed the fast-paced and varied nature of the work. I was always working on different projects simultaneously that appertained to a range of scientific topics and had real impact on the world. I was able to contribute to high level policy documents like the Science and Innovation Strategy which the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned on live television during the Autumn Statement. In research we usually have to spend at least a few years on a single project before we see the impact of our work and even then it rarely departs the scientific community.
What were my biggest challenges?
A lot of policy involves pre-emptive work in case it is later required under severe time constraints. It is impossible to always accurately foresee the exact task that will be requested due to the nature of government proceedings and Ministers. This means often dropping that piece of work you have been tirelessly working on for days, to concentrate on the next task because a new deadline has been set or new priorities have been issued. This also means accepting that your final work will never be perfect because it generally requires input from many people and deadlines are much tighter than in science.
To what extent did I use my specialist knowledge and/or higher level skills obtained from my PhD?
Previous experience communicating my research during public engagement events was useful when writing compelling case studies of the most recent UK scientific breakthroughs to ensure higher spending in science and research. I compiled simple and compelling paragraphs to be used as examples in the Science and Innovation Strategy. I also went from being the worse programmer in the lab to a BIS IT buddy, running around the floor and helping people with computer issues. When I was in the team analysing the Capital Consultation responses, I proposed a solution based on my experience with Big Data analysis which earned me a £300 bonus for increasing efficiency!
My top tips:
Be proactive in networking. I had a great conversation with the Brazilian Ambassador over champagne and also met senior people at events.
Go full time! Immerse yourself in the placement. You will be able to take ownership of your work, assigned to interesting tasks more often, and create meaningful relationships with your co-workers.
Encourage others to do the same. When I completed my placement, I gave a presentation to the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience to share that Policy is a seldom mentioned but highly relevant part of the research process that impacts all levels of academia.