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Placements Q&A

KE Q&A - The Benefit of Work Placements

Placements, fellowships and work shadowing can strengthen research programmes in all kinds of ways, not least by helping to ensure that they effectively meet research users’ needs. Dr Carly Stevens recalls how, as a research scientist with The Open University, she undertook a five-month placement with Defra working on its Atmosphere and Local Environment (ALE) programme – to the benefit of both organisations.

Q: How did the placement come about?  

A:  I responded to an advert distributed via NERC. Defra wanted someone to work in-house with their ALE team’s Atmospheric Evidence Group, helping to evaluate the impact of air pollution on ecosystems. It looked interesting – my area of research specialism is nitrogen deposition and the effect it has on plants. Furthermore, Defra is a key funder of my research so this seemed an excellent opportunity to forge closer ties with them and to work on a programme which, through the policy decisions it informs, feeds directly into the ‘real world’. The Open University were extremely supportive too. Delivering impact is very high on their agenda.    

Q: What exactly did the placement involve?

A: Between October 2011 and March 2012, I spent alternate weeks up at Defra in London. My main task was to produce an internal report assessing the extent to which past ALE research had helped Defra meet its air pollution policy goals, as well as setting out recommendations on how future research could contribute to the achievement of those goals most effectively. Defra are now taking a number of the recommendations forward.  

Q: What did Defra think an ‘outsider’ could offer that one of their own employees couldn’t?

A: Basically, independence and a fresh perspective free from preconceptions. I’ve never been funded by ALE and so hadn’t previously had any feed into the programme whatsoever. That meant I could evaluate past research completely objectively and provide a totally unbiased view of future needs. In fact, Defra learned a lot about themselves from the whole process. My role involved interfacing and building relationships with people right across the Department. As a result, I could see scientific linkages between different parts of Defra that perhaps weren’t so obvious to an insider.  

Q: What did you personally learn from the experience?

A: Before my placement, I was quite naïve in terms of how the policy process actually works. If I spoke to a Government Department to convey some research findings to them, I used to think “right, that’s done – that’ll feed straight into a policy impact.” Now I’m much more aware of just how complex policy formulation is and the different steps and stages it has to go through, and particularly of its evidence needs with respect to both content and form. I can see how evidence has to be framed and presented if it’s to attract attention and stimulate interest. It’s vital to recognise that Government Departments are dealing with colossal volumes of information on a daily basis, so it really helps if what you submit is clear, relevant and thought-provoking.

Q: How important was it to be in a position to forge close relationships with individual Defra staff? 

A: It was essential. Actually being up there at Defra made all the difference in ensuring my report was as insightful as possible. It made me see that you can’t develop a comprehensive understanding of an organisation and the way it works without putting those personal, face-to-face links in place. I’ve also been able to use my improved understanding of the process through which science turns into policy to benefit The Open University and my current employer, Lancaster University. Placements clearly have huge potential to reinforce the two-way bridge that allows knowledge and understanding to flow between academia and Government. I really did find the whole experience hugely enjoyable and highly rewarding.