Why researchers should also do policy

I’m Dr James Squires, and I lead the Academy's work on cross-sector policy. I’ve been at the Academy for three years, and before that I was doing a PhD, so I’ve had first-hand experience of research. I’ve also worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and in Parliament.

What exactly do you mean by policy?

Policy is the process of advising people who have the power to make things happen. Often it’s people in government, but it could be others such as funding bodies, regulators or universities. In science, policy guides things like what research we fund, how we regulate research, and if and how we invest in infrastructure, education, training and more. We want to make sure our research sector is the best it can be and has everything it needs to thrive, because we know that not only is research good for the economy, but critically it leads to better health for patients.

But my research is my priority.

Every scientist should have an interest in policy. When you’re working in the lab it’s easy to be in a bubble where you feel like things don’t affect you – but they do. Your research is going to be affected by policy, and your research is going to affect policy. It’s a two way thing.

Full-time scientists can and should be involved in policy work. You can be a committed researcher and still care about and be engaged with policy. Organisations are increasingly looking for perspectives from people actually involved in research day-to-day, rather than more senior leaders.

What will I get out of it?

Policy work can offer all kinds of opportunities. Sometimes it might be going to events at Parliament with MPs. A lot of organisations are involved in All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), which bring MPs from different parties together to focus on a particular topic such as dementia or diversity and inclusion in STEM. You might be asked to attend discussion events to bring your perspective and expertise. You might help define future areas of work, or get involved in big long term projects.  For people who are really involved, you might be on a panel alongside Ministers, MPs and other people with decision-making power. I’ve always been quite jealous of researchers who get to do that!

Getting involved in policy is also a great way to develop the skills to become a better leader. To succeed, policy projects need researchers who can see the bigger picture of their research and where it might have impact. When it comes to working with tricky people, leading teams, and communicating your work swiftly and powerfully, you’ll have the advantage.

In terms of credit and recognition, policy reports are a publication with your name credited on it in the same way as an academic paper. Policy engagement also contributes towards REF, so long as you can evidence it. Larger universities will probably have a policy team to help you showcase this impact, while with smaller institutions you'd probably need to speak with the REF team directly to get recognition. Policy engagement is also very likely to continue to contribute to any future forms of assessing a university’s impact, so there's a strong case to get involved from an institutional perspective too...

But I don't have time!

The commitment doesn’t have to be huge. Even something as simple as giving your thoughts towards a survey can help shape policy. It’s satisfying to think that each little contribution can help to shape something bigger.

Larger projects typically take one or two hours a week. A short project might only last a month, whereas long-term working group projects typically run over the course of a year and might involve half a dozen face-to-face meetings, in addition to phone calls and commenting on documents by email.

You don’t generally get paid for this type of work. Usually organisations will cover travel expenses, though it’s worth checking.

What might a big project be like?

Longer projects normally involve a “working group” (or “steering group”), which is a group of experts who together review a particular area. First, there’s a period of gathering evidence. The working group is there to ensure that they’re picking up the right evidence, that they’re asking the right questions, and that they’re bringing the evidence together in the right way (for more on evidence synthesis, click here or look at the documents on the side of this page). Then there’s a period of reflection, then together you help shape what the recommendations of the project might be.

I took part in a big project run by the Physiological Society which focused on ageing research. They’ve only got two policy staff but they still do full policy projects like a larger organisation might. In this case we had a working group which was a mix of full-time researchers and people working in policy full-time.

How do I learn more?

If you’re just starting to consider getting involved in policy as a scientist, there’s a few really good organisations that you can learn from – I recommend the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), Sense about Science and Wellcome. The Royal Society of Biology also has a great policy-specific mailing list with a round-up of policy news, as does the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC). All of these organisations also share opportunities on Twitter - as does this Academy!

Okay, I'm convinced! How do I start?

Get involved with your professional body, if you aren’t already. Every career type has a professional body they can join, like the Biochemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Physiological Society, and the various Royal Colleges for different medical specialities. Some might be better known for their careers work, but they all have policy teams – even the tiny ones. It might just be one person, but they will have someone! Professional bodies are always looking for ways to involve their members.

If you’re working in a specific disease area, medical research charities are also a really good avenue to consider. There’s a medical charity for almost every major disease area, and they all have policy teams as well.

For the most part, this will all still hold if you’re based in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many charities and professional bodies are UK-wide, though there are some aspects of policy that are specific to the devolved nations. For instance, each has a separate civil service which sets their own policy agenda, and there are several nation-specific royal colleges which offer other routes to getting involved.

You could email any of these policy teams out of the blue and they would be pleased to hear from you. If you say ‘Hi, I’m a researcher involved in X, and I would like to get involved with policy around my research and relevant areas’, many organisations would be really receptive. Then later, if they know you exist and you’re relevant, they’ll probably get in touch. And the bigger the organisation, the more opportunities there are.

All these organisations are trying to better make the case for why their area of science is important, and why it needs to be funded and regulated well. There are only a limited number of full-time science policy staff, but there are hundreds of thousands of researchers. These people are an untapped resource, and if a significant proportion of them were able to engage in policy, they could be a really influential force.

Learn more about our cross-sector policy work, or find more tips on many aspects of research careers on our Learning Hub.

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