Improving the uptake of research into UK policy

Posted on September 24, 2018   by Maria Howland

In August, the Society supported four members of the Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum to attend a two-day course titled ‘Science Policy: Improving the Uptake of Research into UK Policy.’ The course was organised by Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences. Here, participant Maria Howland reflects on what she learnt about engaging in science policy.

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‘Scientists are important’ Sarion Bowers, Policy Lead at the Wellcome Sanger Institute tells us as we sit in the conference centre in the beautiful grounds of the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire. As a PhD student who spends most of my time pipetting impossibly small volumes of colourless liquids into one another in the lab, this is a statement which isn’t always immediately apparent. But ‘Science Policy: Improving the Uptake of Research into UK Policy’ was designed to explain why it’s important for scientists to become involved in shaping UK policy and how we can do this.

The morning was spent learning about the mechanics of policy making and the networks by which it is influenced. Peter Border from the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) and Cat Ball from the Association of Medical Research Charities spoke about their roles in providing advice and recommendations to inform policy makers on topical issues in science.

In the afternoon we met some current and former MP’s. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before the B-word was mentioned (Brexit), but the speakers all stressed the importance of the UK’s successful science and technology sector for acting as a lifeboat in the potentially stormy times ahead. The MP’s had a very positive outlook on science and research as a whole; scientists mostly come to them with positive news – solutions – rather than the usual influx of emails about delayed trains. They also encouraged us as researchers to get involved in policy by meeting our own local MP’s, seeking out MP’s with particular interests in science and technology and by working with groups like the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Wellcome Trust and learned societies.

After putting the world to rights over a few drinks at the local pub we finished for the day.

The next morning, we met representatives from intermediary organisations. Becky Purvis from the Royal Society spoke about how its Fellows act as important ambassadors with a heavy weight behind them in scientific debates. Paul Richards from the Microbiology society spoke about the challenge of getting members of learned societies engaged in policy and how the Society informs members about policy that can affect microbiologists or benefit from microbiologists’ research. It was definitely useful to hear of the roles these different organisations play in influencing policy. Societies like these are a much more accessible route for involvement and can act as a collective, amplified voice for researchers. The speakers also mentioned how the voice of early career researchers is often missing in policy debates and that PhD students and post-docs shouldn’t feel unqualified to get involved in these sorts of discussions.

The last session was a Q&A where we could ask the speakers about their careers and what working in policy is like as a job. The speakers all had varied backgrounds – some with PhD’s, others without – and all highlighted the importance of transferrable skills like critical ability and communication through writing. I can definitely see the pull of working in policy as a way of using the skills I’ve developed in my PhD to impact society from a ‘bigger picture’ perspective.

I think what I took away from this course more than anything was an enthusiasm to get involved in policy making. I would like to continue to engage by attending more policy workshops and events and by keeping up to date with policy developments in my research area to which I might be able to contribute expertise or evidence. The course also highlighted to me how many different organisations there are out there who work to help the uptake of scientific research into policy which I had no idea about previously. Finally, I definitely gained more of an appreciation for the role of us as scientists in making an impactful difference to society through our research. After all, ‘scientists are important!’

Further reading:
Microbiology Society (May 2018) Engaging in Science Policy. Microbiology Today
Science Policy: Improving the Uptake of Research into UK Policy