Cabot Institute blog

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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

From the depths of a PhD to the heights of the Royal Society: my first month…

The Royal Society
Back in autumn 2015 I applied for an RCUK Policy Internship. At first I was hesitant. Would it mean time lost in data collection for my PhD? Would I fall behind? And would it actually be useful for me beyond the PhD?

Well, the internship is only three months long, and due to it being RCUK-funded I get an extra three months added onto my PhD deadline. So no time lost!  Another thing that swayed me was the opportunity to broaden my horizons and gain lots of skills that I wouldn’t  have had the opportunity to gain while slogging away at the PhD.

Coming from an AHRC-funded PhD, I had the choice of internships with a whole host of organisations including the British Museum, British Library, the Society of Biology, Government Office for Science (GO-Science) and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). With my interests in archaeology (geophysics, soil science, geochemistry), agriculture, new technologies, the environment, and the role of strong independent science advice, I decided to go for the Royal Society, the UK’s national science academy.

At the beginning of March 2016 I arrived at Carlton House Terrace, London, to dig deeper into what strong science policy advice actually is, and how the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre provides it.

What I've learnt


Science policy advice is about communicating new and existing science to decision makers. Decision makers often lack technical expertise or awareness in some of the areas they cover, thus it’s crucial that they can access good advice from the people closer to the research. Decision making and policy advice also both have a crucial time component which can make or break whether advice is well received and useful, or wasted and forgotten. The challenge is to provide excellent and authoritative advice in a flexible and timely manner amongst an ocean of other competing priorities and other advisors trying to do the same thing.

The Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre is a key player in providing strong independent advice, drawn from experts in all areas of science. Experts come from not only the 1645 Fellows and Foreign members of the Society, but also from all relevant fields of research in academia and industry.

In my first month here I've experienced a fast-paced and engaging workplace, with a mix of great people  from a whole variety of different backgrounds. Unlike the PhD, work here has to cover huge topic areas such as energy, environment and climate change. These topics are immensely unwieldy but it’s essential that you  can get up to speed on current and future issues as well as the past dynamics of these topic areas to be able to understand the science and policy demands.

The other interesting side to this work is understanding the wider landscape of these topic areas. It’s not just about considering how academic research can be communicated to decision makers, but also how research feeds into a much wider process that policy needs to cover. How will decisions made affect the private sectors? How do policies impact people and the environment through space and time? Crucially how ‘successful’ are policies and what will policies of the future look like?

Stay tuned


It is an exciting time and so far shaping up to be a great experience! I will be writing a post for each month spent at the Society so look forward to more on horizon scanning techniques, prioritisation, and values within science!

(Views in this blog post are my own and do not represent those of the Royal Society.)
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This blog is by Cabot Institute member Henry Webber, from the School of Arts at the University of Bristol.  His research focusses on the integration of archaeology and precision farming.
Henry Webber


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