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Clearing the path between academia and the policy world: STEaPP's new Deputy Head of Department (Policy)

8 June 2017

Chris Tyler

Beginning this June, Dr Chris Tyler will take on the newly created role of Deputy Head of Department (Policy) at UCL STEaPP. Find out more about his vision for the role.

Congratulations on the new role, which is also a brand new role for STEaPP. What’s your vision for the position?

Thanks. I'm extremely excited about joining STEaPP because it's a new kind of academic department, designed to clear a path between academia and the policy world. STEaPP's formative years were about setting up some wonderful research and teaching programmes; I hope to build on this success by developing policy programmes that complement STEaPP's existing work, and also benefit UCL more widely. I also plan to contribute to some of STEaPP's science-policy research, and to speak out on the important role that evidence can play in public policy.

Your previously worked as Director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Why did you decide to leave?

After five years, I felt that I had achieved the most important aspects of what I set out to do. 

When I arrived in POST, it felt like an institution that had over time become isolated. POSTnotes (four-page summaries of public policy issues based on reviews of research literature and interviews with stakeholders) were valued, but POST itself did not have a clear identity and had weak relationships with much of Parliament. 

So my main goal was to make POST relevant. To that end, we developed POST's role as the primary bridge between Parliament and academia. Because most politicians are interested in policy issues that lean heavily on social science, we established, with the support of ESRC and UCL STEaPP, a new Social Science Section in POST. We built new relationships with select committees, helping them to scope new inquiries and to understand the technological and evidential underpinnings of policy issues. We developed horizon scanning tools to help map future work programmes. We introduced new briefing products to allow POST's expert staff to become more responsive to the needs of parliamentary committee work. We developed training programmes on research methods for parliamentary staff, and professional development programmes on evidence and policy for politicians. We tweaked our fellowship programmes to place researchers all over Parliament. 

These projects, although they didn't feel it at the time, were the 'low hanging fruit'. Their implementation means that I can leave confident in the role that POST plays in parliamentary debate and select committee inquiries.

What appealed about working within a university?

Having stepped up POST's work with parliamentary debate and select committees, the next step was to consider how to improve the way that Parliament uses evidence in making legislation. This is a much more difficult problem to solve; it will need concerted and co-ordinated efforts inside Parliament, as well as constructive and provocative prodding from the outside. I chose to step outside Parliament so that I could provide the latter. The university sector is the perfect place from which to prod constructively and provocatively, not least because making legislation more sensitive to up-to-date research evidence requires a better understanding of how evidence is actually used in Parliament. That requires research, which requires researchers. But it also needs an clear professional mission to engage with and improve our national institutions, which I think is at the heart of universities.

Why UCL?

Tackling the complex and poorly understood issue of how evidence is used in legislatures requires partnerships between practitioners who have experience working in legislatures and academic researchers who know how to frame and approach complex research questions. UCL was a natural partner. Institutionally it is unusually open to partnerships and collaboration across both academic and professional disciplines. It is also carries the enormous benefit of being based in London, where the bulk of our national politics happens. UCL has been developing its policy-focused work for a while now, and joining a growing and talented team of people who want to enhance the role of evidence in policy was an easy decision.

What made you choose STEaPP as a location from within which to conduct your work?

Within UCL, there is nowhere better than STEaPP to ask and attempt to answer the kinds of science-policy questions that motivate me. STEaPP is an outstanding research institution with a practitioner's approach to influencing policy. Experience tells me that to clear a usable path between academia and policy, the path needs to be routed correctly, clearly signposted and meticulously maintained. STEaPP, in my view, is potentially not just the best place in UCL, or London or the UK to approach this challenge... it may just be the best place in the world. 

What work within the department are you looking to build on?

Where to start?! I've done the 'starting from scratch' thing when I set up the Centre for Science and Policy in Cambridge. It's hard! One of the attractions of coming to STEaPP and UCL is that there is already a lot going on that can be built on, and already excellent staff in place to deliver these programmes. One stand-out example is taking place right now: the How to Change the World (HtCtW) two-week course for engineering undergraduates. HtCtW is an important part of the UCL Integrated Engineering Programme, and there is growing interest from other universities to replicate it. Expanding that programme, both across institutions and academic disciplines, and developing a network of motivated graduates with the tools to go and change the world is – looking from the outside – something of no-brainer. It's a nice example because it is grounded in the outstanding educational capacity of STEaPP and UCL, it is tailored to training the next generation of leaders and it puts science, technology and engineering at the heart of our future decisions. Simply put, HtCtW encapsulates what science-policy is all about: making the world a better place by empowering people to make informed decisions.