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Experiences of a secondment to DEFRA’s Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment programme

30 November 2022

A Blog by Alison Fairbrass, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Research Fellow in Natural Capital Marine and Coastal Ecosystems

Photo of street in Whitehall in London

Alison is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Sustainable Resources, University College London. Her work focuses on developing and implementing biodiversity monitoring systems, natural capital data and indicators, and international environmental sustainability indicator initiatives.

Tell us about the secondment, what research area did you cover?

This was a three-month part-time secondment to an evidence team in DEFRA’s Marine and Fisheries Directorate, based in Marsham Street in Westminster. The Directorate delivers the marine Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment programme (mNCEA), a 3-year multi-million-pound Treasury-funded science programme. The programme's main aims are to change how government makes decisions about the environment using a natural capital approach and to fill evidence gaps about natural capital. I have learned that an evidence team differs from a policy team – they can commission research and translate research to policymakers. It is an excellent place to be as a scientist!  

My primary day-to-day work was interviewing inshore fisheries managers to understand how they could use natural capital approaches in the future. In general, the interviewees were very helpful and engaged with the research. Some interviewees thanked me for allowing them to discuss the natural capital concept, as it is something they are hearing more about but don’t always understand. Feeling like I positively impacted the coastal fisheries managers this way was a real highlight of my secondment.

What have the main outcomes and learnings been?

Coming into the secondment, I had in mind a clear output or a report for the mNCEA team. This report would provide recommendations on how they could support coastal fisheries management. I recommended changing the wording in the legislation to broaden the range of values that inshore managers should consider in decision-making. I also suggested what communication needed to happen between DEFRA and the inshore managers to support them in adopting natural capital approaches.

In addition, I commissioned an infographic about my research in the secondment with funding from UCL Public Policy. I am also happy to say the team invited me to collaborate on developing a further research proposal to be funded by them, which is very exciting. In terms of professional development, I have a better understanding of the life of a civil servant and appreciate how hard it can be to engage with them as an academic. Their work is very turbulent, with many political changes impacting them. There is also a lot of staff churn, with ambitious civil servants moving roles regularly, so it takes work to maintain long-term contacts.

More generally, I learned a lot about the civil service culture, including that decision-making is often very siloed - although there is a genuine desire to change this. It's also very bureaucratic and can take a long time to get even simple things done – like installing the right software on your laptop!

What were the team like?

My team was lovely, welcoming, and very hard-working. Many were young and ambitious and used to moving roles regularly, so they were very good at being civil servants but only sometimes specialists in this topic. As an academic, this was very different from everyday working life, although several colleagues had come from PhDs, a few from post-docs. I contacted people in the wider Marine and Fisheries Directorate and across DEFRA to discuss science-policy engagement. I found that often people were interested in having more engagement. Still, at the moment, there are few direct relationships with academics.

Were there any challenges in engaging?

Civil servants aren't always familiar with academic job titles, so I had to be very explicit about my professional level and expertise. Some people assumed I was a student because I was doing a secondment. Sharing my CV with people was helpful so they could understand my professional level, for instance, seeing that I'd published in this field. That also helped people understand the unique skills and experience I was bringing to the secondment. Another challenge was that I  sometimes felt a bit like a spectator. I suspect that my manager did not feel she could manage me like a staff member as I was not on the DEFRA payroll. However, this separation was occasionally helpful in building trust with the interviewees.

How did this opportunity come about, and how can other people explore doing something similar?

I would recommend speaking to UCL's Public Policy team (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-policy/about-us); Katherine Welch advised me on the process.

Step one is to define a project with the policy partner. Personally, I connected with DEFRA through my research project's Advisory Board. This helped me identify civil servants doing work relevant to my research interests. As a result, I co-designed a secondment that benefitted both parties by identifying civil servants already engaged with my research interests. The usual scope of a policy secondment is around 3-6 months part-time, so aim to factor that into your timeframe for what you want to deliver. It would help if you also included elements that will be skills-building for you (i.e., what do you want to get out of the secondment), such as network building, soft skills, etc. Occasionally departments will also advertise secondment opportunities open for applications, so keep an eye out for those.

Secondly, if you don’t have funding within your grant, there are sources of funding at UCL – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-policy/home/support/ucl-public-policy-funding-opportunities. Again, talking to the Public Policy team about this is useful. In my case, UCL Public Policy paid my salary while at DEFRA. UCL Public Policy also funded the design of an infographic – which fulfilled one of the recommendations from my report around a communication piece. However, it’s important to note that the funding doesn’t usually pay for departmental overheads. So it's worth talking to your department about this.

Finally, both parties will need to sign a secondment agreement.

What tips do you have to make the most of it?

  • Find policy contacts relevant to your research and co-design a project idea with them.
  • Going into the secondment, definitely aim to deliver something tangible (e.g., a report) rather than just going for the experience.
  • Try to visit their office in person as often as possible - you will get a good feel for what the civil service is like!
  • A secondment is something to do when it feels like the right time for you. It was something that I had been mulling over for a while, and when I joined a very policy-focused research project, I had a ‘light bulb moment’ when I thought, now is the time! Luckily my research project had the policy connections, UCL had the resources to fund me, and DEFRA had the appetite to have me!

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Photo credit: Bence Szemerey / pexels.com