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https://governmentscienceandengineering.blog.gov.uk/2020/06/02/navigating-academia-and-government-simultaneously-by-asking-the-right-questions/

Navigating Academia and Government Simultaneously By Asking The Right Questions

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In this blog I hope to give you a glimpse into my dual life as Senior Research fellow in the Office of Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) within Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and as a Reader at Queen Mary University of London. The solution to helping them connect is knowing to ask the right question.

With my academic hat on, I can see just how much academics are enamoured by and try to court civil servants. Why? Because for a long time there have been strong incentives to do translational work that is impactful, and what better place to try to have impact than in the policy arena.

But herein lies a problem. Because academics aren’t practitioners and rarely think like ones, what informs the questions they are interested in investigating aren’t practically (unless they are applied) driven in ways that directly map on to policy needs. Why would they be? They are designed for advancing theories, technologies, practice and knowledge.

Nevertheless, when I talk with my colleagues from different departments such computer science, epigenetics, cosmology, linguistics, and psychology, they each want to do work that can be informative in practical ways. In fact, the current crisis couldn’t exemplify this more.

The sweet spot that many struggle to find is this: asking a research question that in the process of answering it, the scientist is able to apply their expert judgement to uncover what is novel, robust, and useful.

Until I started working in the civil service nearly three years ago, I had no idea just how hard this was to achieve. What I can say, which I am ever grateful for the civil service jobs I have had, is that I have never had to think so hard intellectually. Because the most difficulty thing I have had to do is translate, with a high degree of confidence, things that I know in to something that can be useful.

With my civil service hat on, I can see how much the civil service values the input of academics. My role in OPSS, and in the FSA before, is directing the research hub. It sits along analytics as an additional evidence provider. It sources as well as commissions research from a broad range of academic disciplines with varying levels of research experience, from MSc students to Senior academic staff.

Herein also lies a problem. While there might be a need for evidence, Policy doesn’t always ask questions that are applicable to the kinds of questions researcher in academia are used to, or interested in. Policy might ask big, hard, thorny and nebulous questions, or highly specific and exceptionally particular questions. In actual fact, to diagnose what is needed also requires finding a sweet spot: translating the needs of policy in such a way that the appropriate questions can be addressed either directly by evidence gathering new evidence, or by synthesising existing evidence.

When the match works, then both the world academia enjoys the sense that they have, contributed as a public good, and the civil service can demonstrate its innovation and flexibility to new ideas.

If anyone wants to know more about how the research hub in OPSS operates, and potential work shadowing experience, or anything related to developing effective relationships with academics to support policy work, then contact me at:  magda.osman@beis.gov.uk


 

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