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Big Ben

Policy Adviser

Tom Wells

I help communicate about science for the government at home and abroad.

00:09 The public is the ultimate funder of all, or a lot of, science research that goes on in the UK,

00:16 and it’s important also if you’re thinking about how to make the most out of the science that we do,

00:22 that people feel comfortable with what they’ve paid for, what’s being developed,

00:27 as they’re the customers for it in the end as well.

00:30 So whether that means people getting accurate, engaging information,

00:36 through the TV or in a newspaper article,

00:40 everybody, and the government included, has an interest in making sure that they do,

00:44 and the people, feel part of science and feel comfortable with it.

00:48 It’s actually how to work with people, how to promote best practice, to

00:54 encourage researchers to engage the public themselves.

00:57 It’s about taking all sorts of different arguments and different opinions that are coming in from people,

01:04 varieties of sources of evidence, pulling that all together and building that into something that a

01:09 minister or a senior politician can understand with not very much time to take it all in,

01:14 so you have to summarise it and be confident in your ability to pick out the right bits and decide what’s important,

01:21 and the fact that you feel, right in the middle of something important, is really rewarding.

01:27 You know, you can go home and read the news websites and

01:32 stuff that you’ve seen going on at work, or even stuff you’ve been personally involved in advising,

01:37 is now a news story.

01:43 I studied chemistry at the University of York, I specialised in natural resources and the environment.

01:51 Having spent a year in industry, I was clear that I didn’t want to just be a pair of hands in a lab

01:58 and I felt to get past that I needed to do a PhD, so I did a PhD at Imperial College, London.

02:07 At the same time, I was going to schools to give talks, give careers advice,

02:12 I took part, I was part of the Voice of Young Science Network that’s run by Sense About Science,

02:18 so I got quite involved in kind of debates and activities around science communication,

02:24 science policy, so it felt like a natural choice, that I could still use the things

02:32 I learned in my research and in my degree, but not actually being in the lab.

02:37 So when a job came up in BIS (Department for Business, Industry and Skills) that was

02:39 science communication policy it was just a perfect fit.

02:46 The biggest piece of advice I’d give to anyone studying chemistry is that it’s not just about the lab bench.

02:54 The idea that you’ll have a forty year career in the same company is something that probably doesn’t exist anymore.

03:03 Most people are going to be moving around, maybe you’ll have two or three careers in your life.

03:08 So just focusing on one set of practical skills or even just one set of technical knowledge,

03:16 doesn’t set you up perfectly for what is likely to be a very varied career.

03:22 The experience I had outside the lab, working with schools, teaching overseas,

03:31 doing interviews on BBC Watchdog and things like that.  

03:35 They were all things that kind of added the skills to what I could offer to an employer

03:40 and I think that was really important for me when I realise that maybe a kind of normal research path

03:47 wasn’t right, I had other options, I had other skills to offer.

03:51 You’re a problem solver, you’re good with numbers, you can think creatively,

03:56 there are lots of things which are actually much more broadly applicable

04:00 and actually I think often when people are talking about the demand for

04:05 chemistry graduates, or the demand for graduates with a science and engineering background,

04:09 what they’re talking about are some of those other, broader skills.

04:16 I was supporting an expert group of fifteen people from the world of science and the media,

04:23 so they were very senior people in the BBC, editors of magazines,

04:30 very senior scientists, and then press officers as well,

04:34 we had a series of meetings over the course of about nine months

04:38 to essentially write a national plan for the UK about what we should do about science in the media.

04:44 It was incredible access to a whole load of very exciting, senior people.

04:50 A year later, the report that we wrote has been picked up, nearly all of the actions have been taken on,

04:57 either completed or ongoing and we can really start to see some of the impact of what

05:04 we decided was important.

05:06 I’m going to go and live in Bangalore from January onwards, working for the UK government

05:11 in the Science and Innovation Network.

05:15 It’s a network about promoting international collaboration in science

05:20 between the UK and other countries.

05:25 I can’t say that three years ago sat in the lab,

05:28 it would have even occurred to me that this was what I might be doing next.

05:31 But that’s how often things work out, you know, you pick up a new opportunity and then that leads to something else

05:38 and it’s incredibly exciting to be taking on a new challenge like that,

05:43 even if it wasn’t part of the plan not very long ago.

05:52 If you’re looking to join the Civil Service, one of the easier, not easier, ways but one of the obvious routes,

05:59 as somebody who’s got, say, a chemistry degree, is to join the Civil Service Fast Stream,

06:05 which is kind of the graduate entry programme for the Civil Service

06:10 where you get huge amounts of training and support

06:13 and the idea is that you move around every year to develop experience in a number of different jobs.

“It's about taking all sorts of arguments and sources of evidence, pulling that all together & building that into something a minister or a senior official can understand.”

How did I get started?

I studied chemistry at the University of York, specialising in natural resources and the environment. I spent a year in industry and realised I didn't want to work in a lab, so I decided to do a PhD at Imperial College, London and moved into science communication.

Career progression

Because I had become involved in science communication and policy discussion, it felt like a natural choice to go for the Department of Business Innovation & Skills position when it came up. Now I'm being sent abroad to help promote international science collaboration!

“You can go home and read the news websites and stuff you've seen going on at work, or even stuff you've personally advised on, is now a news story.”