How to get a job in science policy

November 6, 1998

Tired of doing research? Why not switch camps and helpdecide who gets the vital funding

In universities all over the country, one of the great topics of common-room conversation is the allocation of research grants - who gets what and why. The people responsible for the awards are ex-academics.

Research councils employ large numbers of PhD graduates, and increasingly postdocs, to administer and allocate awards, as well as to manage programmes, consult the community and develop strategy.

The move from actually doing research to organising it involves a large change of culture. But it is popular, offering an interesting way of working with, and affecting, a wide range of research. It also offers excellent career opportunities.

Take for example the meteoric career of one research council employee, Guy Rickett. Dr Rickett, 36, is currently on secondment from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council to the House of Commons - working as a specialist assistant for the science and technology committee.

Select committees comprise MPs undertaking enquiries into important current issues. As part of their remit, they scrutinise government ministers. To do this they need specialist advice in order to ask the right questions. Therefore, most select committees have a specialist assistant to help them.

"My job is to look at things such as the press release about the science budget from the Department of Trade and Industry and ask what it really means. Obviously ministers prefer to present things in the best possible light, but it's important the committee understand where the possible pitfalls are.

"The select committee looks at science from the constituents' point of view, asking why government is paying for this and not that. Those are political questions which research councils don't usually ask."

After a PhD in bioscience at Southampton University Dr Rickett went to the then Science and Engineering Research Council, supporting the astronomy and astrophysics committee. When PPARC was formed he worked on making its programmes more relevant to industry. This, and a broad knowledge of science policy, were critical in getting his current position.

When Dr Rickett was in academia he wondered who got research grants and why. By working on the inside, he says: "You do see how things happen. And you do see the logic after a while."

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