Engaging with UK science policy makers in Parliament- reflections on a UKRI Policy Internship at the Royal Society of Biology.

My favourite Zoom spot at the Royal Society of Biology offices in Clerkenwell, London.
Adam McCarthy, Business & Management, University of Manchester (2020 Cohort)

In summer 2022, I saw the opportunity for UKRI-funded students to take part in a three month Science Policy internship at one of many leading organisations in the UK. I thought that as an academic studying these organisations and the process of science policy, it might be useful to gain experience in the inner workings of such an organisation. In hindsight, I think this was a good decision for the experience it provided, but I was surprised to find that the insight gained changed my perspective on my research project. I chose to apply to the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) to take advantage of my biological sciences undergraduate degree and also to put into practice my skills gained during my MRes and the first stages of my Science, Technology and Innovation Policy PhD at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research.

During my placement, I was glad to tackle technically and ethically complex scientific issues. Seeing how these were investigated, distilled and subsequently communicated to stakeholders like Members of Parliament was extremely interesting. It provided a window into what kind of expert knowledge is valued and the framing of evidence and risks in political decision-making. This was particularly salient when I was asked to support the science policy team in their response to an evidence-gathering session for the recent genetic editing bill in parliament.

The placement helped me to understand the practical realities of the science policy world, in particular the importance of stakeholder networks, effective communication and strategic decision-making. This is something that might be difficult to find ‘in the literature’ but it also puts a lot of my reading and ideas into context. This has greatly helped me shape my ideas for my project.

Being an organisation concerned with the life sciences, I was the first social scientist postgraduate that the RSB had hosted. In our final meeting, my manager told me that these social science skills were extremely valuable to the team. This highlighted the value of interdisciplinarity and the fact that social science scholars can bring valuable skills to any workplace. This means that I would encourage deeper interaction between social scientists and the organisations and fields which they study!

It was also interesting to see how various organisations were tackling issues related to Equality Diversity and Inclusion. I attended a meeting with the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group for their member organisations, here I heard about strategies and tools from organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, some of which I shared with my own supervisor. It was positive to see the RSB making substantive progress on these issues, including the appointment of a dedicated Senior Science Policy Officer for diversity and inclusion.

A highlight of my time with the RSB was the opportunity to take part in facilitating their Parliamentary Links Day. This involved going to Portcullis House in Westminster to engage with cross-party MPs on issues facing the sciences. This happened at a particularly interesting time, when the UK missed its deadline to associate with Horizon, the European research and innovation fund, leading to some pressing questions from leading scientists. I was also able to improve my writing skills with the opportunity to write for the RSB’s periodical – The Biologist. In this article, I explained a difficult science policy issue and discussed some ways of tackling it.

A few shots from the Parliamentary Links Day. Left: The dining room of Portcullis house Right: Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy Chi Onwurah and former Science Minister George Freeman MP.

Aside from academic reflections, the team were very welcoming and it was a great experience to live and work in London, greatly assisted by UKRI’s travel allowance. The placement has opened my mind to research and career opportunities and I would therefore recommend any student to take advantage of this great opportunity offered by UKRI.

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