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Policy Leeds

08 November 2023, 8:16 UTC Share

An insider’s view on working in science and health policy

*This blog was originally published with Policy Leeds*

Whether you want to engage with policy professionals or are thinking of joining them, understanding what a career in policy is like can only be a good thing.

Here are six lessons Dr Owen Jackson, Cancer Research UK, shared based on over a decade working in policy, speaking at an event on 21 September 2023 at the University of Leeds.

Prior to joining Cancer Research UK as Director of Policy in 2022, Owen worked for 12 years in the UK civil service gaining a wealth of experience in strategy, policy development and programme delivery. He joined the charity from the Government Office for Science, where he was Deputy Director for Global Issues and Opportunities, responsible for developing science and research policy with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. He was also the Cabinet Office’s first Head of Profession for Science and Engineering.

However, Owen started his journey as a postgraduate researcher working on plant science and microbiology at the University of Leeds. During his time at Leeds, he made sure to get involved in more than just the research itself, acting as student representative, joining in interdisciplinary conversations, and innovation training. The skills he gained this way — understanding different view-points, negotiating, networking, putting together business cases — have been just as important for his time in policy as being able to understand scientific evidence.

Lesson 1: Make time to build a wide skills base

Near the end of his PhD, Owen went to a careers department talk on the civil service more out of curiosity than expectation. As a result he put in an application to the science and engineering Fast Stream and was happily successful. His first position was at the Government Office of Science working under the then Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, on the international dimensions of climate change.

However, not all of his roles since have been science based, including working in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, and with the National Security Adviser. He reflects that the policy profession relies on transferable skills such as engaging stakeholders or navigating the political environment, and there is value in refining these skills by working in different contexts. When it comes to getting a job, how you describe the value of what you’ve done is more important than a particular qualification.

Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to try

Early in your career, you have the relative luxury of being able to try things which later in your career become much harder to do. When you are in more junior roles, there is less of an expectation of detailed subject knowledge, and employers are more willing to employ you based on talent than experience. As his second position, Owen spent a year working for UK Trade and Investment (now part of the Department for Business & Trade) in their defence and security section, promoting investment into UK military aircraft. Despite little knowledge of defence sales, it provided Owen with an opportunity to learn new skills, including network-building, project management and stakeholder management in a very different context to what he had been used to. Every role you have — whether you enjoy every element or not — is a learning opportunity.

Lesson 3: Your personal view and professional view can be different — and that’s ok

The role of a civil servant is to deliver the priorities of the current Government and Owen acknowledges that this may not align with your personal position. While working in the Northern Ireland Office, he was involved in advising on when new investigations were necessary as part of the legacy of the troubles. This involved making sensitive and unpopular calls against public investigations. Civil servants need to be comfortable with the tension between the political direction set by Government and delivering the job to the best of their ability. This is not for everyone, but an impartial Civil Service is something Owen values very highly and wants to maintain.

Lesson 4: Make yourself visible and be generous with your time when building connections

When trying to find the best available evidence quickly, policy professionals will use various tactics. This can include going via proxies, such as learned societies or charities like Cancer Research UK, which are a leading voice in their area. It can also be via recommendations, reaching out through networks to find the best people to speak to — LinkedIn can be hugely helpful for policy makers to allow them to develop their informal and meta-networks. Sometimes it can also come down to searching the internet, so it is important for researchers to build their online profile if they want to be found at the important moment.

A lot of policy work is about joining up and building coalitions of people to move things forward. When establishing relationships find the common ground and look for ways to build on this, maybe by helping the other person out with something. Similarly, be inventive about how you keep the relationship going, maybe meeting for breakfast works better than after work, can you involve them in other conversations? Effective networking takes time and effort but is a crucial part of the policy world.

Lesson 5: Figure out where you fit in

Policy is just one of the professions within the Civil Service. Policy makers can struggle to define themselves as their work often spreads across areas, working with specialists in the other civil service professions and external groups to bring in the specifics.

Policy professionals need to work with lots of groups and organisations meaning the policy context can become very complicated, something that only gets worse as more people join the conversation. For some areas, such as National Security, it can be possible to get everyone round a table. However, for larger areas, such as health and cancer policy, other approaches are necessary.

This is where organisation like Cancer Research UK (CRUK) can play a vital policy role as an influencer. As the world’s largest independent cancer research and awareness organisation, CRUK is able to represent a large body of research and supporters, enabling them to have a powerful enough voice to gain the attention of politicians and policy makers and argue for change. Researchers may find working with such policy influencers an effective way bring their evidence to the debate.

Owen himself is relishing his new role which draws on his understanding of policy, politics, research and science. This is a job where he can bring all of his strengths together to push for changes that will make a real difference for cancer patients in this country, now and in the future.

Lesson 6: Good policymaking is the judicious application of a generic set of skills

The most effective policy officials — whether in government or looking to influence government — are not subject matter experts. It is their job to bring together the best available evidence quickly to inform decisions — developing a snapshot of what is known at that point in time. They are used to coping with incomplete and uncertain knowledge, knowing when to press ahead with a “good enough” answer and when to slow things down and seek further information. In a range of roles managing fast-paced crises, Owen learned to apply this approach — reaching for expertise, learning when to live with a best assessment, and how to communicate a risk-based approach to those who have legal or public responsibility for decisions. Getting comfortable with the fact that your unique skill as a policy official is being a “jack of all trades” — rather than a subject matter expert — was something Owen learned probably too late!

Further information

Dr Jackson was guest speaker at a panel discussion on the same day, read more about it in this sister blog: Translating cancer research into policy and care

The sessions were hosted by Policy Leeds and the Leeds Cancer Research Centre.

Leeds Cancer Research Centre (LCRC) is a university-wide initiative, in partnership with the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, that builds on our rich heritage and strong track record of cancer research in Leeds. The vision of the LCRC is to bring together scientists and clinicians across biological, physical, engineering, and clinical sciences to deliver world-leading research that will transform the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, and ultimately save patient lives. The Centre aims to build exciting new interdisciplinary collaborations to tackle major cancer grand challenges and health inequalities, and provide an outstanding interdisciplinary research environment to train the cancer researchers of tomorrow.

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