Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (‘DEFRA’) is the UK government responsible for safeguarding the natural environment, supporting the food and farming industry, and sustaining a thriving rural economy. Defra is also one of the government departments that is central to negotiating the terms and outcomes of Brexit.

MRC Epidemiology Unit student Hannah Forde worked with the EU Exit and Trade Analysis team, where she completed a review of existing theoretical, empirical and practical literature from both grey and academic sources. This was undertaken over three months in Bristol, London and Cambridge, with a view to appraise the relevance and applicability of different types of analysis to Defra’s work, based on their policy interests and types of resources available.

The project brief

This project aim was to provide input to the development of Defra analysis in relation to international trade policy. It will: 

  • inform the way in which we appraise the benefits of trade, including new and existing international trade agreements
  • support the development of trade policy to maximize economic welfare 
  • inform the way in which we conduct international trade negotiations. 

The work will involve undertaking a rapid evidence assessment of the existing theoretical, empirical and practical literature, drawing on academic and grey sources. It will appraise the relevance and applicability of the different types of analysis to our work in Defra, taking into account the areas of Defra policy interest and the types of resource available to us. 

The project will deliver review documents and presentations, including a framework through which to appraise trade outcomes and recommendations for types of analysis to take forward in DEFRA. 

Hannah writes:

“I chose to undertake my fellowship with Defra because I have particular interest the role of policy in food sourcing, equity and provision. My PhD research looks at the impact of the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) on the extent and nature of soft drinks marketing, so I felt that gaining experience in a policy environment would help me understand the SDIL. Based on the focus of my PhD, I was also particularly interested in the abolition of the sugar beet production quota regime in 2017 since this policy resides in the context of the SDIL. Specifically, I was intrigued by the way in which it may interact to influence the SDIL’s potential health outcomes, particularly given that the modelling study published by Defra in 2015 suggested the policy would exert downward pressure on sugar prices. Thus, I thought that gaining first-hand insight of similar trade policy decision-making by undertaking this fellowship would be an extremely useful learning exercise.

I worked with the EU Exit and Trade Analysis team, where I completed a review of existing theoretical, empirical and practical literature from both grey and academic sources. This was undertaken over three months in Bristol, London and Cambridge, with a view to appraise the relevance and applicability of different types of analysis to Defra’s work, based on their policy interests and types of resources available. In addition to the core function of the project, I also made significant effort to make use of training opportunities (such as completing an internal policy design course), integrate with the team (including attending weekly team meetings and the biannual directorate development day), and build social networks (which involved over 20 one-one meetings with employees across Defra and the Department for International Trade). The project delivered a review document, which I will present to a group of trade analysts in mid-November.

The overriding objective of the project was to build the capability of analysts within Defra to inform UK trade policy and deliver improved economic welfare in the UK. I also had personal aims for the project, which were to gain a better understanding of policymaking, and policies that influence food supply, for which I have both an academic and personal interest. Furthermore, I wanted to undertake the fellowship to ensure I had the professional skills necessary for potential employment opportunities after my PhD.

I feel that by producing a review document that I will present to trade analysts in mid-November, I have met the aims of the project as detailed in the advert. However, I feel more able to comment on how the fellowship met my personal aims. Undoubtedly, the fellowship has given me a better idea of policymaking, both from a theoretical sense by completing an internal policymaking course, but also in a practical sense. Largely, this came from understanding the contribution that my own team makes to this process, but also by seeing how this fits with Defra’s wider objectives and other roles within Defra, which I learnt about by speaking with a range of employees across Defra. Attending regular meetings, writing for a policy audience and meeting weekly targets are all professional skills that this fellowship has promoted, and skills which I hope will help me pursue a range of careers following my PhD.

The fellowship was a substantial personal and professional development opportunity. Being able to interact with economists, analysts and advisors across government gave me an unparalleled experience in a policy environment, which I would be unable to achieve in my core PhD studies alone. It undoubtedly helped me develop professional interpersonal skills, and build a network of contacts, both of which are likely to prove useful upon completion of my studies. It is a privilege to be co-funded by the ESRC and Public Health England, so I think it important to take advantage of the unique opportunities – such as these – presented by both funding bodies, in order to make best use of public funding.

Undertaking this fellowship enabled me to develop several context-specific skills that I would have struggled to cultivate to the same extent elsewhere. It was an unrivalled opportunity to gain experience in a policy environment, particularly at such an exciting time of EU policy change. This has demystified a lot of the policymaking process, particularly after completing the Defra policy making course, which will help inform my PhD studies and career ideas following completion of my studies. Practically, the fellowship was also an ideal opportunity to develop professional skills (such as presentations and formal meeting attendance), and existing desk-based research abilities with a view of informing policy discussion. In this sense, the fellowship has brought focus and a new perspective to my PhD research. I am now acutely aware of the importance of academic-practitioner co-production and collaboration, in order to avoid discordance between academic output and challenges faced in the “real world”. I feel that bringing this perspective to my own research will ensure that my work is impact-driven.”

Hannah Forde’s fellowship with Defra took place between July and October 2018

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