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A Scientist as a Knowledge Agent


"I suppose you're not allowed to say anything about what you're doing at work," is a comment that Alex Lewis (pictured left) hears a lot, even from her own family. Working as a "knowledge agent" for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), the science wing of the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MOD), Lewis has no choice but to disappoint those who imagine her role to be that of a secret agent. "There is very little mystery really; it is surprisingly mild," she says.

"A different kind of research"

Mild, however, does not equal uninteresting. Lewis is one of eighteen knowledge agents currently working at Dstl. As in-house information experts, knowledge agents offer MOD scientists a support service for research and analytical projects conducted within MOD. Lewis, who trained as a geoscientist to doctoral level, describes her work at Dstl as "research, but a different kind of research." In her opinion, a career transition from experimental to information scientist is ideal for someone with a general fascination for science and an aptitude for immersing themselves in diverse scientific questions.

As an undergraduate geologist, Lewis was in her element working in the field, which she recounts as "romping over hills doing mapping projects." She feels that a research experience like this "makes you quite independent [early on]." On graduation in 1999, the oil industry--traditionally a reliable employer for geology graduates --was not in good shape for hiring. Lewis opted to do a Ph.D., which she plainly admits was a "second choice." In retrospect, Lewis feels that she didn't select her Ph.D. project--on broadband electrical geophysical surveying--with sufficient care; it didn't turn out to be a good match for either her research interests or personality.

Nevertheless, Lewis managed to acquire considerable experience during this period, experience that would prove to be relevant to her eventual career. As a recipient of a Shell postgraduate bursary, she had the opportunity to do a student placement at the company's plant in Aberdeen, Scotland. Although she enjoyed "having a real job with structure," it made her realise that the corporate sector was not what she was looking for. A further indication of where her professional interests lay arose from her work with the U.K.'s National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) and Eurodoc (European organisation for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers), where she encountered the worlds of research management and science policy.

After finishing her doctoral research work, Lewis started looking for jobs in policy and related sectors. During this search, she came across an advert for the Dstl knowledge agent position. Although the position could be seen as an obvious role for information scientists--librarians--her employer had no issue about her research background. In fact, Dstl 's experiences hiring scientists for this role had been very positive, and over two thirds of the knowledge agent team have Ph.D.s. In line with standard MOD procedures, applicants had to fulfil specific criteria: U.K. nationality was a prerequisite, and all successful candidates had to be security cleared.

Animal or human vibrations?

Dstl knowledge agents offer their service to all MOD researchers. The nature of projects varies from a routine literature update service to more complex tasks such as finding innovative solutions to research predicaments. In this sense, the knowledge agents act as scientific consultants for MOD scientists. Assignments are often both challenging and fascinating. For example, Lewis worked on a project where she had to work out: "if a hidden microphone is placed in a field, how can vibrations alone indicate whether it is an animal or human approaching the device?" The results of such an inquiry can save the lives of soldiers in that field.

Knowledge agents are commonly involved in diverse scientific projects. When presented with a question which is far removed from the agent's direct technical expertise, as often happens, "you [just] need to get to grips with the problem and have the confidence to have a go," Lewis says. Frequently, the agents will go back to the research scientists to find out if their "solution" sits in a realistic realm, or is totally off the mark. A final (detailed) answer comes later down the line.

The knowledge agents thus offer MOD researchers a "lateral thinking" approach and, as Lewis says, "the research teams are very interested to see what we can come up with."

That is not to say that scientists are queuing outside the agents' doors per se. Indeed, far from being secret, the work of Dstl agents' cost scientists funds from their research budget, so the onus is on the knowledge agents -- as individuals and as a group -- to spread the word on what they can offer researchers. MOD is a large organisation, so a good proportion of her time is spent on "promoting ourselves and building up trust." Her impression is that agents with a scientific background gain credibility with researchers more quickly than her colleagues without.

Currently, Lewis is engaged in three projects. She likes having several projects on the go so she "can dip in and out of them." For her, having to deal with a large array of topics is far more appealing than being a specialist. She views multi-tasking, an ability to work independently, a general fascination with science, and what she describes as "the skill of getting interested [in a new topics]" as the must-haves for her job.

Lewis has no regrets about her choice of a job "which is never going to be dull." She also finds the atmosphere of the public appealing and would like "to remain this close to science." She believes that along her career path she, importantly, "eliminated [career options] that were not right for me." This, perhaps, is the secret to the career success of a very "unsecret" agent.