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Infrastructure investment

Robert Downes

Photo of Rob Downes
Robert Downes is a PhD student in UCL Mathematics. His research project project is titled "Modelling fermions by means of Cosserat elasticity" and aims at developing a new mathematical description of fermions (elementary particles such as the neutrino and electron).

Why were you interested in the UCL Public Policy secondment scheme?

Aside from a general interest in politics, I have long wondered how the civil service functions as the operational side of government.  In particular, I was keen to understand how policy is considered, developed and enacted. Given my background in research, I felt the UCL Public Policy secondment scheme offered an excellent opportunity to  develop an understanding in an area of policy that directly affects the community in which I work.

Where did you undertake your policy secondment?

I worked in Research Base, in the Knowledge & Innovation Directorate in the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

What did you learn from your secondment?

I learnt that being a civil servant is not an easy job. Balancing the needs of a huge community of researchers, given the current economic and political situation, for example, is extremely complex. However, I did succeed in my ambition to follow a specific policy from inception to enactment (well, almost).

What did you find most valuable?

Being for the first time in a situation in which a professional persona was absolutely necessary was a steep learning curve. Ultimately, this is a desirable attribute in any job, but it was acutely important when dealing with sensitive topics such as funding and long-term strategy.

What surprised you most?

The role that email plays in running the country. On my most productive day I sent out well over 100 individual, personalised emails. In addition to this, the broad range of expertise required in science policy was a mild shock. I attended meeting whose focus ranged from the long-term economic benefits of science policy to low-power computing based around “on-chip” server design.

What do you think the benefits were to your host organisation?

BIS is able, through the secondment scheme, to build positive relationships with one of the communities it serves. While many aspects of policy will be controversial, involving members of the academic community, say, in the development of UK science policy will ensure that interaction with the community goes beyond consultation: this policy is being developed and directly informed by practicing scientists and researchers.

How has the secondment changed the way you work?

My manner in emails is much improved and, in general, I spend more time aiming for clarity in the exposition of my work. I am also capable of dealing with far more acronyms than previously!  

What would you say to other UCL researchers considering a policy secondment?

This is an excellent opportunity to get inside the workings of government in a meaningful way. While one should be prepared for the impact it has on one's study (getting up early is never easy) I think it is increasingly important that the academic community and government engage in a constructive manner. Seeing how things work “from the inside” is a great way of doing this whilst having a positive impact on policy (and providing a serious addition to any CV).

More details 

The Research Base team in BIS deals with funding for research and innovation, liaising with the various funding bodies (including the research councils, their umbrella body RCUK, and organisations such as HEFCE), providing government-sided support to their activities. 

During his secondment, Rob focused on national research computing facilities and associated infrastructure, and as a member of its secretariat, supported the e-Infrastructure Leadership Council (ELC) created by David Willetts (Minister for Higher Education) to provide him with expert advice regarding the future direction of so-called “e-infrastructure” in the UK. 

Rob found his lack of familiarity with the machinery of government challenging throughout the secondment but nevertheless had the opportunity to gain insights into this, including through:

  • minuting meetings of the ELC
  • participating in day-to-day business, such as organising review meetings of previous investment with very short notice
  • interacting with members of the academic and business communities.

His main task was the production of a five-year business case detailing an investment strategy for UK e-infrastructure. He took a lead role in researching the background for this document, incorporating various commissioned reports and views expressed by the ELC and other stakeholder groups. This meant that he had a substantial role in setting the tone and perspective of the early draft.

Rob says: 

"Overall, I consider the secondment to have been a marked success. It has given me first-hand experience of exactly how a central government department operates. I have a much improved understanding of the policymaking process, and have developed a range of other useful skills that would be beneficial in any professional environment. Indeed, I have been able to find a new role providing policy research and advice to a member of the House of Lords: this is as a direct result of the experience I accrued during the secondment. …

"I found the secondment to be an extremely rewarding experience. It provided a whole range of interesting and useful experiences, as well as a new job opportunity. My CV has never looked better! More than anything, though, it has cemented in my mind the need for active researchers to bring their experiences to bear in the policy arena. Engagement of this kind is the best way to construct successful policy."

Page last modified on 25 oct 12 12:53