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Six months at the heart of science in Government – reflections from a knowledge mobiliser

⌚ Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Florence Greatrix, CAPE Policy Fellow, has been working with the Government Office for Science in their Emerging Technologies team. In sharing her reflections on her time working in policy, she explores the value of doing a policy fellowship and offers insights into what it’s like working in GO-Science.

Florence Greatrix

CAPE Policy Fellow at Government Office for Science & Policy Advisor, UCL

I have spent most of my career so far at the interface of research and policy, first at two learned societies and now in UCL Engineering’s Policy Impact Unit. In all these roles I’ve worked closely with UK Government officials, including in the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), but I’d never experienced the Civil Service first hand.

I got the opportunity to join the GO-Science Emerging Technologies team through a CAPE Fellowship. While there are lots of opportunities for researchers to spend time in policy roles such as in Government or Parliament, it’s less typical for a “knowledge mobiliser” like me to do this. I saw this as a chance to deepen my understanding of the role of research in policy making and learn more about GO-Science. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity!

Now I’m approaching the end of my six-month Fellowship in the Emerging Technologies team, here are six key things I have learned about GO-Science:

1. Wide reach and impact across government

I knew a little about GO-Science before I started my Fellowship. I knew it provided the Secretariat for Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE); which was particularly visible during the pandemic. I’d seen reports from the Foresight team which delivers important projects on big, cross-cutting issues like the Future of the Sea, ensuring policymakers have evidence to create policies more resilient to the future.

I’ll be honest in saying that I didn’t realise the extent of the work GO-Science does to bring scientific evidence to the whole of Government. For instance, the Technology and Science Insights team help departments keep up to date with developments in emerging technology. Their work is focused on helping policy makers understand and act upon risks and opportunities to future-proof decision making. They provide an evidence base for government to target science and technology (S&T) to address the most significant challenges of the future and increase UK prosperity, wellbeing, and security.

The breadth and depth of its work and the way it draws on expertise from academia, industry and beyond is exciting and stretches further than I thought.

2. Well placed to work with academia

I have been working on the “Knowledge Mobilisers Network” (KMN) which is a mechanism for Government officials to access subject specialists in any technology area to inform policy development. The network is made up of “mobilisers” – including learned societies, knowledge exchange networks such as the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and Public Sector Research Establishments. Our mobilisers reach out to their networks on our behalf to find experts from academia or industry to help with our requests.

The KMN is just one way GO-Science brokers productive cross-sector engagement, by offering civil servants a new way to tap into broad and diverse expertise from outside its usual contacts. It also offers our mobilisers and experts new opportunities to inform policy with their expertise and experience. I’ve enjoyed meeting our mobilisers and bringing new organisations on board, managing requests, and building our evaluation mechanisms so we can better understand what works and what we could do to improve the network. 

GO-Science is an obvious route for any university looking to work with Government. For example, we share opportunities including KMN requests through the UPEN newsletter. In a separate initiative, GO-Science is piloting co-working with colleagues at the University of Manchester to explore opportunities to collaborate on topics of mutual interest.

3. Committed to science during Government machinery changes

I was not expecting to see three prime ministers during my six months in Government. During periods of uncertainty, I was struck by how committed and focused everyone remained on their work and equally reassured by the repeated emphasis on the importance of S&T to tackle global problems For example, GO-Science works closely with the Office for Science and Technology Strategy to deliver their priorities, including a “environmentally sustainable and resilient UK, delivering on Net Zero”. Their important work and collaboration continue at a critical moment for tackling pressing challenges like climate change.

4. Committed to strong cross-sector collaborations

I recently organised a workshop designed to explore how we can better use expert insights to spot emerging science and technology – what we’ve called “knowledge scanning”. The event brought together 25 horizon scanning practitioners from industry, consultancies, Government, professional organisations and academia to share ideas and explore insights, inspired by approaches to workshop design we use in our team at UCL.

Findings from this session will support GO-Science’s work to combine insights from our networks with our data-driven analysis tools for early identification of emerging technologies, as well as areas of strategic risk in S&T. I’ll also be sharing our findings to civil servants interested in emerging technologies via our community of interest. This is just one example of how GO-Science convenes diverse voices from across the S&T landscape to achieve its goals. On a personal level, it was fascinating to meet and learn from people across different corners of the community and to re-connect with some stakeholders I had met in other roles.

5. A positive place to work

Upon joining an organisation part-time for six months, I was honestly expecting to feel like a bit of an outsider. I was relieved to be proven wrong as I was immediately welcomed into GO-Science. Everyone took the time to explain what they do, tell me I who else I need to chat with, and show me how things work. I know now that this is central to the culture here: every day colleagues openly thank each other, whether they have gone above and beyond on a project, done a job well or have simply been kind or supportive. This all contributes to a genuinely happy and motivating working environment which I have enjoyed being part of.

6. A diverse workforce

I am used to being the designated “policy person” in research projects, so it has been great to be surrounded by others who are motivated by the importance of evidence-informed policy making. Equally, everyone in GO-Science has a shared understanding of the importance of S&T in society.

I’ve encountered colleagues who have joined GO-Science on a range of routes for different lengths of time. UKRI interns are skilled PhD students with different backgrounds. There are also interns, apprentices and Civil Service fast-streamers as well as people joining from other Government departments. The combination of these mechanisms for attracting diverse talent is a strength of the UK’s science capability and the Civil Service. It’s been great to see this first hand.

I’ve gained a huge insight into what working in Government is like and a real understanding of the role of S&T in policy making. I have built working relationships which I hope will last beyond my Fellowship and identified opportunities for continued collaboration between GO-Science and UCL. I am grateful to both of my teams for their understanding and support while I have balanced both roles part-time, and to CAPE for this fantastic opportunity.