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Yes Minister: So Do You Want to be a Parliamentary Scientific Advisor?

Three years ago, as part of her interview for a position at the U.K.'s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), ex-physicist Chandrika Nath (pictured left) took her first walk through the Palace of Westminster, the home of the two British Houses of Parliament, a journey she describes as "a trip back in time." In another sense, though, it was a glimpse of her future.

After nearly a decade of academic research, Nath made a career transition into national science policy, as a POST Advisor, a job she finds deeply rewarding . . . and challenging. In one way, she explains, her work is like that of any diligent researcher: painstakingly gathering information, spending hours poring over facts and figures and pondering their significance. But in another way, her work is quite different from that of the typical researcher: she interacts with a wider array of professionals--from lobbyists to members of parliament (MPs)--always seeking science's larger implications.

Throughout her academic training, Nath never shied away from adventure or from looking outside the direct boundaries of her expertise. Even as an undergraduate, she rebelled against her parents well-meaning wish that she take a vocational degree in a field such as medicine or engineering, and studied physics at Imperial College, London, in the late 1980s. On graduation she did a "gap year," spending the first part in a "Work America" volunteer research project in Lubbock, Texas, helping to design a part of a particle detector for the Stanford Linear Collider (SLAC), and spending the rest of the year touring the U.S., hitching rides all the way from Mexico to Alaska. After that, she went on to do her Ph.D. in particle physics at the University of Oxford.

Although she found the research atmosphere in Oxford generally "wonderful," she was disappointed to find that experimental physics seemed like a boys club in some respects. This feeling of isolation was heightening by the fact that just after spending one year away, she struggled to get her head around complex mathematical problems that seemed second nature to her colleagues.

Undeterred, Nath focused hard on her work. She was awarded the Hanseatic Scholarship from the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, a prestigious award aimed at encouraging closer Anglo-German links that is rarely given to scientists. She used the award to learn about German culture and language, and to conduct the final two years of her doctoral work at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany.

Although Nath says her doctoral research "really stretched my brain," on-the-ground experimental physics seemed to her to be more about computer programmes and big machines than it was about conceptual science. "I felt removed from physics," she says.

Finding a suitable POST

As she contemplated a postdoc, Nath decided she couldn't see herself spending her life ploughing through computer-generated data. She wanted something more tangible. So she switched fields -- to glaciology -- and started a postdoc at the British Antarctic Survey in 1998. Hired mainly for her math ability, Nath's 4-year postdoc took her from near one pole to the other, from Lapland to the Antarctic. On the latter trip, she spent 2 months collecting data in extreme isolation -- 1,000 miles from the nearest base station. She describes the experience as one of the most exhilarating of her life, and one that tested the strength of relationships between colleagues beyond what most people ever face.

Nath found glaciology ultimately more satisfying that experimental physics, and she thoroughly enjoyed this postdoc. Yet, despite her taste for research with "bigger picture implications," she found even this more broadly focused academic research too specialised. Another nudge away from research came during the final year of her postdoc, when she took part in the British Association (BA) Media fellowship scheme, which offers active research scientists the opportunity to work with journalists. She spent 2 months in the offices of the British broadsheet, the Daily Telegraph, and "realised that I liked communicating science and having a broader remit."

In early 2002, Nath spotted an advertisement for the position of an Adviser at POST, applied, and got the job. The office employs six Advisers -- all scientists, most of whom have a Ph.D. She recounts that she was asked quite complex scientific questions at her interview; apparently she managed to answer them adequately. Her candidacy was helped, she believes, by the fact that her employers valued her time in more than one academic research field, which gave her a rich network of experts -- and expertise -- to tap into for this role. She had found a niche, finally, where her broad interests served her well.

Advising Parliament

POST was established in 1989 to provide both Houses of Parliament with independent and balanced analysis of public policy issues relating to science and technology. POST advisers have several key duties: issuing briefing papers and longer reports (available to both MPs and the public), giving oral briefings and informal advice to parliamentarians, and organising seminars that bring MPs together with the academic community, the media, non-governmental organisations, other interest groups, and members of the public.

Accomplishing any of these tasks requires an intuitive feel for what information non-scientists -- the vast majority of parliamentarians and the public -- need to know to solve a given problem. For example, Nath says "all our briefings have to pass the 'cornflake test'; you should be able to read and understand the information in the time it takes to eat a bowl of cornflakes." At the same time, the documents the Advisers draft require thorough research to be balanced and accurate. The work requires careful consultation with front-line researchers, learned societies, industry, journalists, and lobbying groups and all publications are peer-reviewed later by these groups to ensure they are impartial.

One of the advisers' roles is to support Parlimentary "Select Committees". These all-party committees are made up of back-bench politicians and play an important -- and very public -- role in scrutinizing and challenging government departments. If a House of Commons Select Committee criticises the government's handling of an issue, the government must give a public response. Such an event can trigger major reform.

The office portfolio is broad, ranging from biological and health science, to environment and energy, to physical sciences and information technology. Although the advisers specialise to a degree, Nath is currently working on projects as diverse and challenging as "e-Science and the grid," "The militarisation of space," and "the 24 hour society."

By conducting all these activities, the Advisors, collectively, "are informing parliamentary debate," as Nath explains. It's a task which, she notes, has to be conducted without any "emotion or prejudice" -- a crucial factor when dealing with issues as sensitive as those addressed in reports like Assessing the Risk of Terrorist Attacks on Nuclear Facilities.

In her opinion, the most important skills needed for this type of work are patience and diplomacy, the ability to communicate science to a diverse audience, the skill to write in a concise and refined manner without jargon, and the discipline to conduct thorough research. She sees her research background as "brilliant training" for the latter. The necessary communication skills, she feels, are quite different from those that journalists must possess, for, in journalism, her impression is that time constraints and the need to make stories "sexy" often take priority over objectivity and a balanced argument.

Walking though Westminster Palace on route to a committee meeting or briefing, nearly 3 years after that first interview tour, Nath says she still gets a thrill strolling through "living history." More importantly, from a personal perspective, her role at POST has turned out to be excellent career match for a thorough researcher who was never afraid to look outside the box.

Editor's note:

If you are interested in getting experience in science policy, POST runs a 3 month fellowship scheme for doctoral students -- organised in conjunction with scientific societies and research councils. Further information can be found on the POST Web site.