SiP committee member Christopher Nelson started off by describing the structure of the UK Parliament and where science comes into this. “Given that only 4% of our current MPs have a science degree, the government needs input from the scientific community to make evidence-based policies” he said. As such, Parliament is supported by a host of organisations that provide scientific advice, including government ministers, select committees, the Civil Service and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Yet science and policy are driven by very different factors and even if the prevailing evidence supports a certain measure, other issues have an impact, such as economics and public acceptability. It can take a long time for research to influence government agendas; as Christopher explained. “Individual studies rarely change policy – instead it is an expert consensus and body of evidence that prevails”.
This makes it vital that scientists are able to demonstrate to the public why their research is important and why it should be trusted. As SiP committee member Helen Hicks put it: “Science isn’t finished until it is communicated”. She set us the task of describing our research projects using the analogy of a box of chocolates. There were certainly some imaginative reinterpretations (perhaps incentivised by the free sweets), most of which seemed to end up by covering the floor with chocolates!
We then welcomed our guest speaker Dr Daniel Leary from the Government Office for Science, who introduced us to what the Civil Service is, and the role of science and engineering within it. “Our job is to help governments develop policies and deliver their vision for citizens” he said. This organisation, made up of various departments reporting to government ministers, provides both services (such as pensions, passports and benefits) and advice. The science and technology sector has grown considerably since the first Chief Science Advisor was appointed in 1964, with there now being 70 Science Advisory Councils. Some of these cover broad themes – e.g. defence, transport and health and safety – whereas others focus on specific policy areas, such as solar energy and nuclear power. They act as a link between MPs in Parliament and academics, industry experts and NGOs – which is crucial when important decisions have to be made quickly. Daniel gave the example of when the government chose to close all airports following the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull; “This wasn’t a decision which was taken lightly, but it was based on high quality advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies”.
With such diversity, a career within the Civil Service can offer scientists varied work with the potential to directly impact everyday life. “You won’t be sat at a lab bench or looking down a microscope – you will be meeting experts face to face, sourcing advice and set a broad range of intellectually interesting jobs” said Daniel. But this requires strong skills – particularly communication: the ability to translate complex information to non-specialists and to pick out key messages. “We look for people with adaptability, drive and ambition” said Daniel. “You also need to be completely impartial – prepared to serve any government with equal diligence”. If you think you have what it takes, the next step is to apply to the Civil Service Science and Engineering Fast Stream: a rigorous process that involves online questionnaires, decision tests, video interviews and an assessment centre. But the reward could be a career far different to the usual options in academia and industry. As Daniel aptly summarised: “Working in the Civil Service is like a box of chocolates- you never know what you’re going to get”.
To learn more about Science and Engineering in the Civil Service, watch ‘The GSE Story’. Further information about the Science and Engineering Fast Stream can be found here. Also, look out for internships advertised on the Civil Service jobs portal.
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/