A view from inside Defra: lessons from the BES Shadowing Scheme

By Dr Jenni McDonald, University of Exeter

The task of safeguarding the natural environment in the UK falls firmly at the feet of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Their responsibilities are vast, ranging from the food we eat to the air we breathe. The decisions they make can have consequences for many.

As a post-doctoral researcher, existing in my own research bubble, I found it difficult to understand the connection between research and policy.  Political decisions are a key way through which research can have a substantial impact. However, I was completely in the dark about the workings of this influential department.

The BES Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme provided an unprecedented opportunity for me to spend two days shadowing senior policy-makers in the UK. So, in early December 2015, I ventured into the heart of this department to get a glimpse into the working life of Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Adviser, and Fiona Harrison, the Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor, to gain an understanding of the UK policy environment.

Schedule Overview

Day One: My first day at Defra started with an informal chat with Ian Boyd’s team and Fiona Harrison about the upcoming days meetings. I then shadowed Fiona at meetings with managerial staff and evidence and analysis teams. I was also fortunate to have one-to-one meetings with other department members to find out about different job areas and research processes.

Day two: On my second day I shadowed Ian Boyd to get a feel for the working day of the chief scientific advisor.  Arriving at 8.45, Ian’s working day had already started an hour earlier. I shadowed him at over 13 meetings and with no stopping for lunch it was a packed day. There were meetings with heads of directorates, advisory committees, executive agencies, evidence staff and I was even permitted a privileged brief venture into the Royal Society. Nine and a half hours after I started, my day finished at 6pm.

So what was the general feel of this department? It has to be said, I was at Defra the week following the spending review from which Defra saw significant cuts to their budgets. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere amongst staff was one of uncertainty.  Although decisions were yet to be made, my impression was that Defra will be more integrated across research areas and will be looking to optimise collaborations in the future. It will be interesting to see how this develops in future years.

So how does research integrate with policy? There are lots of ways such as executive agencies, external committees, advisory groups and externally funded research. But what are the research processes at core Defra?

  • Defra is made up of many directorates, each containing an evidence and analysis team. The teams consider all dimensions of research, and also span many different areas from flood risk management to biodiversity.
  • There’s not just the value of science that is a factor when it comes to developing policy, but also the economic and social aspects. Consequently, evidence teams are multidisciplinary, composed of economists, social researchers and natural scientists.
  • The reality of spending government money is that everything has to be costed and projects need to be economically viable. This is easier said than done when dealing with the natural environment, as policies will likely be at an impasse if the benefits can’t be valued.

Fulfilling a scientific role at Defra appears to be ideally suited to a T-shaped scientist, with a broad, shallow knowledge of a wide range of scientific topics plus expertise in a single area. These kinds of adaptable scientists would be well suited to applying themselves to the multiple research areas within Defra.

Outside of Defra how can my research have impact? From everyone I spoke to the message was clear. For research to be effective in policy its impact needs to be considered from the start, and proposals need to be shaped with a specific scientific outcome in mind. This ensures research can have maximum impact at completion stage. Consequently research needs to be co-designed, co-developed and co-delivered with policy makers.

Overall, I left this world of acronyms and managerial mazes with a better understanding of the connection between research and policy. Moving forward, for research to have maximum impact it needs to be communicated to those who can use it. This currently requires researchers to be proactive in seeking opportunities to engage policy-makers. I hope there will be increasingly more space for researchers to have these conversations with policy makers in the future.

Dr Jenni McDonald took part in our Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme in December 2015. The scheme is open to early to mid-career ecologists, and we will be opening applications for 2016 placements in the next few months. Find out more.