The Royal Society has started a Policy Secondment Scheme: placing research fellows in Governmental departments to foster communication between scientists and science policy-makers. Dr Lily Asquith is a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow based at the University of Sussex, and is one of three participants on the pilot round for this scheme. Lily’s secondment is in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, working with the team focused on combatting Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT). Dr Emma Hennessey is the deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, and has taken Lily under her wing.
Why would an experimental particle physicist want to go into Whitehall?
In November 2016 I took part in the Royal Society’s ‘Week in Westminster’, during which I spent a great couple of days in BEIS and another couple of days in the Houses of Parliament and at GO-Science. This really triggered my interest in science policy. At around the same time, I was feeling a bit depressed and lethargic; nothing was satisfying my addiction to new things. I have been a member of the ATLAS collaboration since 2006, and had started falling out of love with the experiment and with academia in general. So, when the Royal Society announced their pilot scheme to place scientists in government departments for longer periods, I applied. A few possible areas were suggested, one of them being IWT – I immediately knew that I wanted to do this project even though it does not obviously have anything to do with my skillset, because I am a closet naturalist.
What would Whitehall want with an experimental particle physicist?
I was not specifically looking for an experimental particle physicist (sorry, Lily!), but I was interested in the Royal Society scheme. I trained as a scientist (biology and biochemistry), and have spent my civil service career managing research programmes and working on science policy. I have a personal interest in the area where science meets policy-making and believe there is much more we can do to bring academia and policy-making closer together. The Royal Society do some fantastic work in this area – I also have participated in their Week in Westminster scheme and I am always happy to support their work. I saw the scheme as a great opportunity to work with a scientist at the bleeding edge of research, to get involved in something a bit different. In addition, the chance to get some help into a very busy team was welcome!
What can a dork learn from such an experience?
I joined the IWT team soon after the Foreign Secretary announced that combatting IWT is one of his personal priorities. Working closely with DEFRA and DFID who also hold responsibility for the policy, the Foreign Secretary will be hosting a large conference in October. “Oh good,” I thought, “I have some experience of organising conferences”. It turns out though that this is completely different to a scientific conference. A scientific conference is an opportunity to present completed work, and is quite often the catalyst for actually getting the ruddy work ‘completed’ at all. If a scientific conference is a digestif, IWT conference is an aperitif. I have been working on numerous different things with different members of the team, but have now settled on technology with Emma, which I particularly enjoy because I am a dork. Emma has taken me to various fascinating meetings, such as to the MET police forensics division to meet a wonderful police officer who is dedicating his spare time to saving elephants, and to the Satellite Applications Catapult HQ in Harwell. As my time with the IWT team comes to an end I feel reluctant to let go – the people are resilient, calm, kind, and super-smart in ways I do not normally come across very often.
What was it like having a dork under your wing?
I have really enjoyed it. There are not many scientists in FCO, so it was nice to have another one in the exclusive club! Lily’s enthusiasm has been infectious and her expertise has been very welcome. I am very much a science generalist now, but I have found Lily’s ability to do technical work invaluable. She has also brought some fresh perspectives to our work.
I’m a dork! How do I do something like this?
The Policy Secondment Programme is aimed at Royal Society Research Fellows and civil servants, with applications for the 2019/20 round opening in January 2019. The Week in Westminster pairing scheme is aimed at scientists, civil servants, and parliamentarians. The scheme is currently open for applications from civil servants.
I’m a civil servant! How do I do something like this?
Make friends with the Royal Society and find out what schemes are coming up. Do the Royal Society Pairing Scheme to start engaging with academia. Talk to Emma!
How do I find out about the IWT Conference in October?
For more information about the Conference, happening in London on 10 and 11 October, see their website.
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