By Michael Wood, Policy Intern at the Biochemical Society (January – March 2016) and PhD student, University of Leicester
It is almost impossible to know if you will like a job before starting, by which point it is usually too late to change your mind. Internships offer the freedom to spend some time exploring a job without any long-term obligations and can therefore be a perfect introduction to a new field of work. As part of the first year of my doctoral training programme , I was encouraged to spend three months in an area of science outside of research. Admittedly, I was not looking forward to this and considered it a waste of time that could be better spent getting on with my research project. This was partially due to the fact that I had almost no idea what area I would like to do my internship in, but after talking to an older student who had worked in the policy department at Defra, I realised it could be something I would be fairly well suited for.
Despite only having a cursory understanding of the relationship between science and policy last year, I found out that Learned Societies play a role – they can act as a channel through which scientists can express their opinions on a range of subjects and feed into the policy making process. Following an interview, I was invited to join the Biochemical Society and the Royal Society of Biology for three months. During this time, I contributed to designing a questionnaire on the EU’s role in UK bioscience at the Biochemical Society analysed the results and wrote a report. I also wrote several blog posts, I attended many committee meetings and took minutes for a few, and I made considerable progress towards developing an online portal which would act as a resource for the policy work of dozens of organisations at the Royal Society of Biology.
Outside of direct policy work, I contributed to a downloadable kit which will help people to run outreach activities on painkillers and volunteered at The Hungry Games event at the Northern Ireland Science Festival. One of the things I enjoy most about lab work is the variety and I was slightly concerned that I would end up in a repetitive internship, but the large range of responsibilities meant no two days were the same and I enjoyed going to work each morning.
My work often took me outside of the office, such as being able to attend the Voice of the Future event at the Houses of Parliament, where young scientists were given the opportunity to ask questions to those involved in policy making, including ministers and MPs. I took advantage of being in London temporarily and attended other events relevant to science policy, for example a panel discussion at the Royal Society about the relationship between research and government and the annual CaSE lecture given by the Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson MP at the Royal Institution. I also attended some more general events about science such as a discussion on big data in healthcare at the British Library and the safety of pathogen research at the Houses of Parliament. These events featured some highly esteemed figures in science and policy such as Dame Julia Slingo, Sir Mark Walport, Jo Johnson MP, Professor Chris Witty and John Bercow MP. Attending these events was a particular highlight of my internship and allowed me to feel part of a much larger science policy community.
The internship has made me realise that the policy making process is a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. I was also made aware of the importance of policy in science. While science may inform policy makers about Ebola or antimicrobial resistance, science is also affected by policy decisions, such as changes in policy in how research is funded and the way in which research is evaluated, for example, through the Research Excellence Framework.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Biochemical Society and the Royal Society of Biology and will continue to engage in policy work either through a career in research or potentially in policy. I would recommend that any student given the chance should explore future work possibilities outside of their comfort zone.