by Katie Raymer
Last year, I completed my PhD at the University of Leicester and finally crossed the Earth’s magnetopause one last time and entered the science policy-osphere!
In this blog post I’ll tell you about how I got to where I am now and what a career in science policy entails.
Fake news, POST and parliament
When I started my PhD, I hadn’t thought too much about what I wanted to do afterwards. I quite fancied a post-doc position, but knew it would be difficult to get and wasn’t certain if I wanted to stay in academia in the long term. In the summer of my second year, when I was working incredibly hard* (*procrastinating on Twitter…) I spotted a tweet about a three-month policy Fellowship with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). After doing some research and speaking with my supervisors, I decided to apply. I thought it would be a good excuse to start thinking about my CV for post-PhD life and so I felt I had nothing to lose. As it turns out, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!
POST are best known for producing short policy briefings on science and technology topics for parliamentarians known as ‘POSTnotes’. POSTnotes distil an incredibly large volume of research into four-pages in a clear, concise and impartial manner.
During my Fellowship, I was tasked with writing a POSTnote on Online information and fake news – a topic completely different to my PhD and highly controversial! It was great getting to grips with something new and putting my research and communication skills to the test. To produce the POSTnote I interviewed academics, civil servants, people from industry and the charity sector, and read a vast range of literature. After going through multiple review stages, it was published!
I would highly recommend doing an internship during your PhD. It teaches you new skills, and how to work with different people and in different environments. It gives you a break from your PhD and it is fantastic for your CV. Applications for UKRI POST fellowships are currently open.
How much does a kilogram weigh?
For me, it wasn’t an option to not have an income once my PhD funding ran out, so as the date loomed, I started job hunting. After a couple of rejections, my friend sent me a link to a Policy Communications role at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). I sent off my CV and was invited for an interview. They offered me the job and I managed to negotiate starting part time for my first month whilst I finished writing my thesis (which I would wholeheartedly not recommend if you can help it – new job, new career, new city AND writing a thesis… pretty stressful!).
NPL is the home of measurement in the UK: they develop and maintain the national primary measurement standards, as well as undertaking scientific research, development and testing new products and processes. As my role at NPL included comms, I was lucky enough to get involved with the media campaign on redefining the kilogram (and three other SI units!).
Until recently the kilogram was defined by a lump of metal, known as ‘Le Grand K’, which sat in a vault in Paris – whatever this lump of metal weighed set the ‘kilogram’ standard. Immediately you’ll spot the flaws in this – the mass of a lump of metal is not stable and it is estimated that Le Grand K has actually lost about the mass of an eyelash over its lifetime! So the point behind the redefinition of the SI units was to future-proof the system and link all the SI units to physical constants. The kilogram is now realised using the Planck constant. You can read more here if you are interested.
I worked at NPL for about 9 months before moving to where I am now. Lots of people tell you that it looks bad on your CV to only work somewhere for a short amount of time and change jobs frequently. This was certainly a concern of mine especially since I had just changed my career entirely, but I think it’s more important to do a job you really want to do. I enjoyed my time at NPL, but the job wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. I learnt a lot and had some great opportunities (like going to Versailles to watch scientists from all over the world come together to vote to redefine the kilogram!), but the time was right to move on.
Newton’s death mask, science policy and meeting Boaty McBoatface
I started at the Royal Society in March 2019 and have loved it. The Society is a fantastic place to work with an incredible history. It is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence in the world, and its walls are adorned with paintings of past and present eminent scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.
One of the exciting opportunities about working at the Society is that I get the chance to explore their library and vaults. They contain a vast array of scientific journals, articles, minutes from every meeting the Society has ever held, artwork, and even Sir Isaac Newton’s death mask (a plastercast of his face made immediately after his death… bit gross really).
The Society has one of the largest science policy teams outside of the civil service. I work as a Policy Adviser in the research systems team. This means I look at things like funding for research and development in the UK, and research culture which encompasses topics such as academic career paths, equality and diversity, research integrity and open access.
One of the cool things about my job is that I often have the opportunity to get out and about and meet people. Below is a photo from a visit to the National Oceanography Centre to discuss immigration policies for researchers. We were given a tour of the labs and I was introduced to Boaty!
What is science policy?
Science policy is often looked at in two ways: science for policy and policy for science. The first is about providing independent, authoritative and accessible scientific advice to decision-makers and to inform public discourse – so this could be providing evidence on climate change for government, for example. The second, which is where my work falls under, is about creating the best possible environment for excellent science by providing evidence and advice for policies that will have a direct impact on research such as migration, exiting the EU, and research culture.
Some of my day-to-day responsibilities include undertaking research, drafting reports and briefings, and organising and managing events and projects. I work with Royal Society Fellows and other experts to develop and promote independent, expert, and timely advice to decision makers.
What jobs are there?
There are lots of different science policy jobs you can do. Policy roles quite often overlap with communications and public affairs, so depending on what you enjoy and where your strengths lie, you could work anywhere on the policy communications spectrum.
You could work for Government in the civil service or be a policy analyst in the House of Commons or Lords Science and Technology Committees. Conversely, you could have more of a lobbying role and work at a learned society or charity like the Institute of Physics, Wellcome Trust or the Campaign for Science and Engineering, or work at a National Academy like the Royal Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering. Instead, you could have a more technical consultancy role and carry out research that will be used by policymakers.
I’ve only mentioned a few, but there are a lot of different jobs out there!
How can you do it?
Here are some of my top tips for starting a career in science policy: