Mairead Ryan, a PhD student from the MRC Epidemiology Unit, drew on her knowledge of complex systems evaluation to review a scientific advisory council’s operations and outputs, and updated a related guidance document for the Government Office for Science. Mairead told us how the placement honed her written communication skills and prompted her to reflect on the aims of her own PhD:

“I spent six months working in the Government Office for Science (GO-Science). The placement provided an opportunity to work with individuals from a range of fields, ensuring a diverse set of disciplinary perspectives to be challenged by and learn from. It presented a brilliant opportunity to better understand the ‘machinery’ of the UK Civil Service, to work outside of a university setting, and to observe how scientific evidence is perceived and used in government.

Two projects were proposed prior to the placement. They were both immediately attractive to me as I felt they both held potential to effect long-term positive change to the development and use of evidence in government. The first project involved designing and conducting a review of a scientific advisory council in the UK, known as the Council for Science and Technology. I drew on relevant theory and literature to conduct the review and was able to use my knowledge of complex systems evaluation more generally to inform the approach taken. The second project involved revising and restructuring a guidance document known as the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils. The revision involved conducting two rounds of review with internal stakeholders, and restructuring the document before it went to a public consultation.

The findings from the review were shared with the Co-Chairs and members of the Council for Science and Technology at the end of my placement, and presented at their quarterly meeting for discussion. The report will be published and presented to other stakeholder groups in the coming weeks.

The revised Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils was submitted for an eight week public consultation at the end of the summer. The revised document will be published later in 2021 and be used to guide scientific advisory committees and councils across government departments in their operations to promote the good governance of evidence.

It was a really interesting and enjoyable placement! I learned a lot about scientific advisory committees and councils, how they operate, the substantial resources required to ensure that they can make credible, relevant and legitimate recommendations for their government customer to consider, and the on-going support required for implementation.

Beyond a better understanding of the formal science advisory ecosystem within government, and Civil Service terminology and processes, this placement provided me with a different perspective on the use and impact of academic outputs. The fellowship made me reflect on the questions my own PhD aims to address, and improved my awareness of the many academic engagement networks and opportunities across government departments.

I think my writing skills also improved over the course of the placement. There is quite a specific template that civil servants must use to inform and update senior members of staff on projects. I am often guilty of hiding the point I am trying to make behind jargon and lengthy paragraphs – this isn’t an option when drafting a one-page submission.

I would advise prospective applicants to reach out to current or previous employers in the organisation of interest to ensure that the project will be a good fit for them and that there is considerable scope for the individual to develop professionally. I would also suggest a longer fellowship period if feasible (i.e. on the upper end of the 3-6 month period). Although it will depend on the project and person, looking back on my placement, I think it could have been challenging to contribute to the bones of a project if I were there for a shorter period of time.”

Mairead Ryan’s fellowship with the Government Office for Science took place between March and August 2021

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