In 2017, the Royal Society launched a new fully-funded Science Policy Secondment scheme offering its Research Fellows the opportunity to gain policy experience at the heart of government. One of the first three ‘Royal Society Policy Associates’ to undertake the secondment, Dr Marco Sacchi, reflects on his experience of working part-time in the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) over six months.

Dr Sacchi is a Royal Society Research Fellow in the department of Chemistry, University of Surrey.

 

Background

When I heard about this scheme, I was thrilled by the idea of using my skills and experience which I gained as an academic to contribute to the governance of the country that has hosted me since nearly a decade, and already given me so much in terms of life experience and career opportunities.

At the department for Business, Energy, Industrial Strategy, and Skills (BEIS), I joined a team that was working on the new UK International Research & Innovation Strategy (IRIS), a major policy that will affect (directly or indirectly) all UK universities, research institutions, R&D businesses as well as international students and scientists working in the UK within the next decade. The IRIS will also guide the development of the relationships between the UK and the global scientific community, including the elite institutions and groups, private or public, that are already investing or collaborating with the UK.

This was a very exciting project for me to join, having spent a significant part of my academic career in the UK. I have also always been passionate about international policy, convinced of the importance of active participation in public life and expected this experience to be both personally and professional enriching.

What was the scheme like?

As a Policy Associate, I contributed to the identification and elaboration of key policy performance indicators and engagement with stakeholders and experts in the subject areas involved in the Research Strategy. Since this document has not yet been published, I am understandably not allowed to discuss or comment on the specific commitments and policies within it, but hope that some of my readers will be interested in knowing more about the processes and mechanisms underpinning the development of this complex and long-lasting strategic policy.

The process starts by engaging with stakeholders and experts i.e. other government departments, funding bodies, national academies, and private sector representatives, who are invited to discuss and collectively agree on the list of key indicators that shall be employed for evaluating the performance and effectiveness of the policy implemented. In the IRIS’ case, these include national research outputs, competitivity, public investment in R&D, economic and social relationships with the UK etc.

The objective of the IRIS is not solely to serve national self-interest, but also to provide a long-term strategic framework to ensure that R&D delivers significant benefits for global welfare, health and security. With IRIS, the UK recognises the central role that science plays in driving scientific, cultural and economic progress, and intends to continue championing scientific research internationally.

What have I learned from this experience?

The Civil Service and, in general, the political and governing bodies of the United Kingdom, need scientists and a deeper and constructive engagement with the academic community.

In the last two decades, substantial progress has been made in understanding the urgent need to replace ideology-guided policy-making with more evidence-based policy making. Good, evidence-based policies should be, as much as possible, ideologically unbiased and therefore less susceptible to political and societal fluctuations in mood and interest. It is absolutely clear that ideology, partisanship, self-interest and personal biases should not affect the national priorities for scientific research. Pragmatism and expert-lead processes must be employed when the government defines research objectives and scientific priorities.

There is also a need for a wide discussion on the role of government and public opinion in scientific research, although we already have a growing consensus on the best practices for setting strategic scientific goals. In fact, one of the few certainties we have in science is that it is essentially impossible to predict when the next big discovery or technical breakthrough will come or how it will come. Again and again the public is surprised when, from the so-called marginal or niche research areas come novel materials, fundamental new theories or ground-breaking discoveries. In this context, I believe that the policy makers have taken on board the need for a balanced, bottom-up, approach to research strategy that leaves scientists free to follow their interest, curiosity and passion, independent of the short-sighted impact that this can have on the economy.

Concluding remarks

My experience in the International Research & Innovation Team at the Department for Business, Energy & Innovation has been extremely positive and rewarding. The People of Her Majesty’s Civil Service are highly professional and perform a complex, delicate and essential task that is to help, support and implement the national policies of our Government. They work constantly with the uttermost dedication and professionalism and, at the same time, manage to maintain a refreshing spirit of openness, inclusivity and leadership by example. I am very much convinced that the civil service does not get nearly enough credit or consideration for the wonderful work they do in serving the public as an almost invisible engine that propels the British democracy through peaceful and turbulent seas.

Finally, I do not want to ignore the infamous elephant in the room that haunted us in almost every discussion, meeting and workshop during my time with the Civil Service. I am an Italian national and I have been in UK since 2009. I am painfully aware of the impact that the referendum is having on the quality of life of EU researchers in the UK, the uncertainty of their futures and the futures of their family. It was very positive and heart-warming for me to see the respect and understanding the civil servants have for the difficult situation of EU researchers living in UK, and I am convinced that most policy-makers desire to support EU nationals employed in academic and R&D sectors. After this experience, I am even more convinced that it is critical for the UK scientific community to maintain close links with our European colleagues, for the sake of science and the sake of this country.

 

Disclaimer: the views and opinions presented in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the department for Business, Energy, Industrial Strategy (BEIS) where he undertook his secondment.

More testimonies are available on the Science Policy Secondment scheme case studies’ webpage.