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From Ecosystems to the Political System


Like many young scientists these days, after embarking on a research career, I realised that although I was fascinated by all aspects of science--especially my own field of ecology--I did not want to spend the next 30 years writing grant proposals, carrying out experiments, and publishing technical articles.

After a postdoctoral research fellowship in France and a brief period as a university lecturer in the United Kingdom, I was looking around for something that combined my interest in research with my wider interests in science. Today, I am the director of Save British Science ( SBS), a campaigning organisation that presses the governments in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast for better funding for science, stronger science education in schools, and policies that give the general public greater access to the benefits of scientific and technological research. This is by far the most fascinating and fun job in the scientific world, but I got there by chance, rather than design.

I was exceptionally lucky that, at exactly the moment I started looking for a job that coupled research with something else, the Zoological Society of London advertised for someone to spend half of his or her time doing research and the other half combining media and communications work with fundraising for the organisation's wider scientific programme. I got the job partly because it happened that my own research interests fit neatly into the organisation's activities, and partly because I showed that I had been involved in discussions about science outside the academic arena. I had a small amount of experience dealing with the media and writing about science for newspapers and magazines. I had taken part in radio phone-ins about science and had submitted answers to the "queries" columns of newspapers when the questions had been about my field.

The post at the Zoological Society was an almost unique halfway house between a research vocation and a career in the wider world of science. The 3 years I spent there reinforced my view that full-time research was not for me. I also gained all kinds of experience that stood me in good stead for a job in science policy.

Applying for the job with SBS was more or less an accident. My friends and I were sitting reading our copies of the British Ecological Society's Bulletin over coffee, and out of each copy fell a yellow piece of paper advertising for a new director of SBS. About six of my colleagues passed me the advertisement saying they thought it would be a suitable career move for me.

The tiny amount of policy experience that I already had came about mostly because of my field of research. For example, when studying insects in Brazil and wolves in Ethiopia, I had been involved in discussions with civil servants and other government representatives, both in the United Kingdom and in host countries, where my work could be carried out only after detailed discussion with government experts and once my colleagues and I had the appropriate licences and permits. Closer to home, when carrying out ecological surveying in London, I had been required to liaise with the local authorities--for example, to get permission to trap rodents (alive) in public parks, in order to assess the size of their populations. I had helped sort out some of the paperwork for my institution's submission to the Research Assessment Exercise and had sat on a couple of lower-level committees.

By far, the most important characteristics that helped me get the job with SBS were a commitment to communicating about scientific issues and a wide range of interests in current affairs outside of the narrow confines of scientific research. I would not have been employed, and certainly could not do my job, if I were not the sort of person who reads the newspapers every day, regularly listens to current-affairs programmes on the radio, and is actually interested in what is happening in Parliament.

The science policy community with which I now deal on a daily basis consists of people as diverse as politicians, civil servants, practising scientists, administrators, journalists, university vice chancellors, businesspeople, and students. I was hugely lucky that my job at the Zoological Society had afforded me plenty of opportunity to practise communicating with an extremely wide range of audiences, from 2-year-old children to a Cabinet minister.

One of the reasons people now take what I say seriously is that they can see that I could potentially have had a scientific career. I have earned a Ph.D., accumulated postdoctoral and lecturing experience, secured my own grants, and published scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. Indeed, I still try not to become too distant from the world of real scientific discovery, and since starting at SBS, I have contributed in very minor ways to ongoing research projects and have written an undergraduate textbook about ecology. Many of the most successful people in science policy have some kind of track record in research over and above simply completing a master's- or doctoral-level degree. And many of the skills I now use are similar to those employed in a research career--for example, networking with a wide range of specialists to ensure that I am on top of all the most recent developments.

But the transition from research to campaigning for science also meant learning a whole new set of skills. Meetings with politicians tend to be short and to the point; there's no time for caveats and explanation. I had to learn quickly that it is not always essential to cite every precise detail about a subject in order to make one key point. I also had to learn something about the arcane way that Parliament operates--appearing before a select committee of members of Parliament (MPs) was certainly a unique experience. And I had to find out about how policy is made and how it affects real scientists on the ground.

My job is obviously a bit of a one-off, but for other people who are interested in science policy, there is a growing number of positions in various organisations. The big scientific institutions, such as the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Physics all employ teams of people to deal with their policy making and to interact in the political arena. MPs and peers with an interest in science tend to employ researchers who share that interest, and both houses of Parliament have library staff to help prepare scientific briefings. There is a small, dedicated team called POST--the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology--that occasionally takes people on short internships, sponsored by individual scientific societies. Many of those societies, and other organisations with scientific interests (e.g., environmental charities or lecturers' trades unions) need people to prepare and enunciate their political aims and objectives. And, of course, the people who make real policies--the ones that are actually going to be put into practice--are those in government; plenty of people get jobs in the civil service after training as scientists.

If you care about science and you're interested in politics, a job in science policy will be frustrating, never repetitive, hard work--and endlessly fascinating.