Working in science policy is all about taking complex science from experts and translating it into something accessible, to be used in key decision making.
After completing a PhD at the University of Oxford, trying to find different ways to make biological tools for drug development, Catherine Ball moved into science policy, and in May 2015 she started her current role as Policy Analyst for the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee. Here she describes her transition from academia.
Click here to read about how Ball pursued science policy as a career.
Why did you decide to leave academia?
About two thirds of the way through my PhD I realised that academia wasn’t for me. I found it quite frustrating when things didn’t work in the lab and I struggled to cope with the fact that you could spend a whole day in the lab and be no further forward than you were when you started.
My area of research was also quite niche and theoretical, and sometimes it felt like research for research sake. I soon realised I was more interested in the broader context and implications of science. So, in 2013 I took up a role as Policy Advisor for the Biochemical Society and Society of Biology where I focused on antimicrobial resistance, equality & diversity, science policy in the devolved nations, open access and drug discovery.
What was the transition from academia to science policy like?
It was a big learning curve. It’s also about understanding the landscape, how policies are made, where scientific expertise feeds it and the best way for it to do so. I had little experience in this when I realised this would be a good career for me, so I made sure I got some before I finished my PhD.
What skills did you need to transfer?
Science communication was the main one. Lots of the work I did in terms of translating complex science and articulating it in a readily understandable and translatable way was useful. It’s all about taking complex science from experts and translating that to something anyone can readily read and use to make a key decision based on that.
Things like time management and organisation are also useful skills that I developed during my PhD. A PhD is a very independent endeavour, so you get very good at organising your time and making sure that you plan effectively and get things done.
How did you find out about careers in science policy?
I met a lot of people and asked them for advice. Joining twitter and following key science policy people on Twitter gave me a really good feel for the policy landscape, and key people and organisations involved. I did everything I could to ingratiate myself into the community to learn what was going on.
What has been the most interesting project you’ve worked on at the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee?
Our first enquiry was on genetically modified insects. Our call for evidence came out towards the end of July 2015 and that has been really interesting. It was an area of research that I didn’t know anything about, and it could have really big implications for public health and agriculture in the future. It’s a great mix of pure science and science policy.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to move to science policy?
It’s not like academia where the traditional career path is set in stone. Every person working in policy will have had a different way in, often quite unusual and serendipitous. So talk to as many people as possible. Internships are a great option to get as much experience as you can. Read around the area. Try to keep up to date with developments.
Interview by Julie Gould