Science issue: Using evidence to inform public policy

12B Amanda Roper (head and shoulders)News‘Evidence’ is at the heart of scientific and historical endeavour. I had not really thought of the two together until I began making public policy.  I studied history and have spent much of my career working with experts in epidemiology, economics, engineering, law, veterinary science, nuclear physics….  While the list is endless, the issues I have worked on, from counter-terrorism to tackling bovine tuberculosis in cattle, all come back to the evidence and how it is used.

So, how has a self-confessed historian sneaked into writing a STEMM blog? Two words: transferable skills.

Any form of studying can give more than knowing who Emilie du Chatelet was (early eighteenth century mathematician, translated Isaac Newton’s Principia) or being able to tell the difference between a bacteria and a virus.  Among the fundamental transferable skills are clear written and oral communication, understanding complexity and having some proficiency with a computer.  For working at a higher level there are some which are worth cultivating and the ones I have found most important to making an impact in public policy are:

  • Knowing the context – public policy is not developed in a bubble and the bigger picture surrounding an issue such as the economy, overall direction of animal health policy or the political priorities of the Government of the day can be important in pointing to or narrowing down possibilities. History is all about the context and influences at a point in time. Science is influenced by what came before and what’s of value to a society (sometimes before we know it is of value). Public policy decisions are made within a similar environment.
  • Being analytical but pragmatic – a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity combined with understanding different forms of information means I have been able to take an economists evidence, talk it through with epidemiologists, test the information by asking questions and then combine the conclusions with what can be done on the ground to develop options. Data tells part of the story and something may work well in scientific conditions but it might not be possible to put it into practice.
  • Seeing other perspectives – there is rarely a single view, especially among scientists and lawyers, and this is a Good Thing. Being able to synthesise, assess and make decisions is made harder by not having one, agreed, set of evidence to start from, but the outcome is often better. There is also the wider perspective of those a policy might affect: what might be a logical, evidence-based conclusion can result in public outcry.
  • Communicating and influencing effectively – every profession or area of expertise (including policy making) has its own technical language or jargon. It’s how tribes of professions (and humans) work – the included and the excluded. What’s important is being able to break through those barriers to communicate complexity in a clear way while listening to and being aware of your audience. It’s an ability to translate even though everyone is usually speaking the same language!

All of these skills can come from high level study of history, engineering, a social science or a science and then underpin a high level role in using evidence to inform policy. My top tips for making the most of them is to have a good level of self-awareness – what are you good at, what do you find difficult, how do you react to challenge – and then work out what is most valuable for what you want to achieve.

Amanda Roper
Head, Parliamentary and Ministerial Relations at Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Career Path: From biology to consultancy, music, technology and…..

12A Claire Pettitt photoCareerI remember being jealous of those people at school who were certain what they wanted to do with their lives: the ones who wanted to be a vet, or a lawyer, and so had a pretty clear path mapped out towards that goal. In contrast, I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to end up; I was strong in several areas, from English and Music to Biology and Maths…and the prospect of narrowing things down horrified me, as I enjoyed working across several subjects!

Many years later, I’m pleased to have been able to maintain this desire for variety in my career to date, which has spanned a number of industries – none being remotely scientific. But I can say with confidence that I’m glad I chose to study science at university, as the skills I learned during my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge have proved to be endlessly transferable.

I began my career in strategy consultancy, working on projects across industries from energy to healthcare equipment and private equity. After a couple of years, I felt frustrated with strategy work and wanted to ‘get my hands dirty’ by actually managing things myself. I couldn’t believe my luck when a client I was working with found out I was a keen classical musician and invited me to work at London Music Masters – the music charity he had founded. I became their Chief Operating Officer and stayed there for 3 years, learning everything there was to know about running, and funding, a startup organisation. This was the perfect grounding for my next role as Head of Operations & Finance at the social enterprise Spice, which runs the largest community currency scheme in the world. Most recently, I’ve moved into the tech industry with a similar role in an exciting and fast-growing software company,, which provides online scheduling solutions for entrepreneurs, small businesses and big companies all over the world.

My science background has undoubtedly assisted me in my career in many ways. Here are some of them…

  • Critical thinking. Science demands that you take a close look at the evidence presented and consider how best to interpret it. I’ve certainly found this helpful when trying to make tough decisions at work; often it’s important to look at the data rather than simply trusting your instincts. An example would be, at London Music Masters, deciding the best way to focus fundraising efforts to maximise the returns.
  • Unravelling complexity. Studying science involves being confronted with highly complex information, developing a detailed understanding of it, and ultimately taking it one step further. Throughout my career so far, I’ve regularly thrown myself into the deep end by taking on senior roles with no prior experience in that area and then proving that I can succeed. Knowing that I’m capable of quickly understanding and processing complex information has given me the confidence to progress more quickly and to push myself to discover what I’m truly capable of.
  • Continuous learning. Scientific knowledge is constantly progressing, so it’s essential to keep up to date with the latest developments. Being able to demonstrate a desire to continue learning throughout your career is a huge asset in any industry. For me, this hunger for new knowledge has persisted; I now follow numerous blogs and news articles relating to the tech industry, as well as continuously picking up new skills and technologies as they emerge.

Hopefully my diverse career path demonstrates that studying science doesn’t only lead you into science-related roles – it also prepares you for almost anything your working future may hold!

Claire Pettitt

Science at Cambridge: Building robots (and self-belief!)

11D Joanna and radio

UniversityMy name is Joanna and I’m a second year Engineering student at Murray Edwards College. I’ve always been interested in science, and as years progressed I found myself unable to choose just one narrow discipline. I decided studying Engineering will teach me how to apply a wide range of knowledge to everyday concepts. This was also why the engineering course at Cambridge was especially interesting to me, as its open structure with general engineering taught during the first two years allowed me to further explore different areas before deciding which one is the most fulfilling for me.

I remember being a little apprehensive about my own abilities in a technical field before I started my degree. While taking part in a Physics Olympiad in my home country I met boys who made robots with their fathers ever since a young age, and were taking apart computers for fun (I was the only girl in the national finals, as well!). My high school didn’t even have a laboratory and if I took apart one of our home appliances my mother would never forgive me. I wondered, would I ever be able to create something myself? Could I ever compete with them? And then the Cambridge course started and I got my answer – yes! Thankfully, it seems the university believed in me more than I believed in myself.

11D Robot Wall-E
Robot Wall-E

In the very first week we were asked to build robots from Lego Mindstorms. I still remember it as a week of absolute panic and despair – but also utter delight when at the end of it our robot was actually moving and doing what we wanted it to. Not long after that we were asked to build an AM radio using a bunch of wires, capacitors, resistors and our knowledge of circuits. (In the photo at the top you can see me, excited, with the ready “product”.) This year, we were asked to build a robot again. In groups of 6, in the space of a month, we created, almost from scratch, an actual moving thing that could follow lines, pick up multi-coloured sticks and sort them into boxes scattered around a playing area. I was responsible for the electrical systems on the robot, such as light sensors, PCB boards and actuators.

Interestingly, considering my initial apprehension, those hands-on activities became the most enjoyable part of my degree. This is why I applied to the Cambridge-MIT exchange scheme, and from September will be studying at the top Technology Institute in the USA, known for its hands-on approach and dedication to research. The research aspect is especially interesting for me. In the next two years I want to specialize in Electrical and Information Engineering and hope to one day be able to contribute to the development of electronic devices.

Joanna Stadnik
Undergraduate student