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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science issue: Using evidence to inform public policy

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    16 Jun

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

    Find out more

    12B Amanda Roper (head and shoulders)'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
    Alumna
    Head, Parliamentary and Ministerial Relations at Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)