An interview with David Carr about his transition from academia to science policy.
Staying in touch with science was the one thing David Carr wanted when he left academia in 1998. After spending a year working in a scientific consultancy organisation whilst also writing up his masters, Carr joined the Wellcome Trust. Since joining he has become more and more involved in science policy. In this interview I ask Carr why science policy is important, why he enjoys it and what advice he has to offer to those who wish to work in this field.
Why did you initially decide to pursue a PhD?
I was interested in and passionate about genetics (which I specialised in during the final year of my undergraduate degree), and at the time it seemed like the logical next step to continue to postgraduate research. Looking back, I really drifted into it – I didn’t really look enough at other options or really consider what the day-to-day work involved in doing a PhD would be. I thought that getting a PhD would be a good thing to do in terms of keeping open career options within science and outside, and that it would be a natural continuation of my undergraduate studies, but quickly discovered the reality was quite different!
Why did you decide to leave?
I realised almost straight away that laboratory work was not for me. While I was interested in scientific questions and concepts, I didn’t find the day to day process of doing experiments on a very specific topic at all fulfilling on a personal level. And I was frankly not at all good at it! It was hard to admit defeat and give up, and it took me two years.
I don’t regret the time I spent in the laboratory – I got to work with some brilliant and committed people, and it has been invaluable in my future career to have had first-hand experience of the academic research environment. I also don’t regret for a second the decision to stop – which was completely the right move for me at the time.
What attracted you to the role you took after leaving academia?
I knew I wanted to do something related to science. I was also keen to try to find a role that utilised my strengths – which I recognised by that point were around assimilating and analysing information, and writing in a clear, accessible way. While I was wrapping up my PhD studies and writing up it up for a Masters degree, I was lucky enough to get some work at a scientific consultancy organisation in Cambridge. This involved pulling together information on behalf of commercial and public sector clients around research in the academic sector, and identifying experts to potentially act as consultants. The projects covered the full range of research areas from metallurgy to life sciences – I loved the variety, the challenge of having to learn about new areas quickly. A job as a research assistant in the policy section of the Wellcome Trust came up, which required quite similar skills, and I’ve stayed with the Trust ever since.
You currently work as a Policy Advisor at the Wellcome Trust, what does your role entail?
The work involves developing and advocating the Wellcome Trust’s position as a major biomedical research charity on key policy issues surrounding research and its application for healthcare benefit. My current work focuses particularly on issues around sharing of research data and open access publishing – where we are working to ensure research outputs can be accessed and used as widely as possible, and address the challenges this raises for the research community.
The day-to-day work in our team combines responsive activities – such as responding to consultations from Government and other organisations on policy proposals and preparing briefings for senior staff on key policy developments – and proactive work to engage parliamentarians and other key organisations and to build the evidence base in key areas of interest (through commissioning research, holding expert workshops and so forth).
What impact does your work have on academia and scientists?
Our key aim is to act as a champion for science in policy debates, working to ensure that the overarching policy and funding environment – at UK, European and global level – allows research to flourish. This includes, for example, working in partnership to advocate the importance of a long-term Government strategy and sustained funding for science, and inputting key regulatory developments. An excellent example is the ongoing debate over the European data protection regulation. We are working with a range of partners throughout Europe to highlight the very serious ramifications this could have for biomedical research, and try to ensure the final regulations meet the need of researchers.
In addition, a key focus of my own work on data and open access is attempting to influence cultural change in the broader research community. This necessarily involves working closely with the research community and recognising its concerns, but also being prepared to take a lead and challenge current practices where we believe there is a need for change. Indeed, adopting a leadership role of this type is something we strive to do as an independent research charity.
What skills did you transfer from academia to your role as a policy advisor?
In my case, I have always relished the challenge of understanding and addressing complex problems. I enjoy the challenge of bringing together and appraising existing knowledge around an issue – determining what this means (in policy terms) and where the gaps in evidence exist.
What do you enjoy about working in science policy?
I think the key attractions of science policy for me are (a) that I’m genuinely interested in and passionate about the policy issues effecting science and (b) the diversity and challenge of the work. There’s also a really good mix of longer and very short-term projects, and I work with really great and diverse team of people here too.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in working in science policy?
There really isn’t a set career path, and people find their way into policy through all kinds of routes. The core skills I think are the ability to rapidly assimilate information and identify what’s really importance from a policy perspective, and the ability to communicate this clearly, both in writing and verbally. Enthusiasm, drive and an interest in science policy issues are also important things we’d look for in anyone wanting to join our team. It can be very hard to get the first bit of experience you need to demonstrate your skills – internships are a good way to do this and get a taste for policy work. They can be highly competitive but perseverance does pay!
If you have any questions for David about working in science policy, funding, open data or data management, please leave a comment below the blog and he’ll get back to you.