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8 October, 2012 - 09:04 By Tony Quested

Cambridge science under the microscope

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC (left) with Halima Khan Director of the Public Services Lab, NESTA and Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy, Cambridge and Prof James Wilsdon of SPRU, University of Sussex (right). Image: SymBLS/Nelly Olova

PhD students from the Babraham Institute organised the University of Cambridge’s annual symposium for Biological and Life Sciences students (SymBLS) at Peterhouse College, bringing together students and their research with academics, industry and policymakers.

The Government and industry attendees particularly enjoyed connecting, and in some cases reconnecting, with cutting edge research being done by the graduates at Cambridge University in the UK.

“It was great to chat with students and other Government colleagues alike and get back in touch with the ‘pure’ science,” said Tabitha Dale from Defra. I’m a microbiologist so many of the student talks were right up my street!”

Three distinguished keynote speakers - Sir Mark Walport (director of the Wellcome Trust and incoming UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser), Professor Douglas Kell (CEO, BBSRC) and Professor James Wilsdon (Professor of Science and Democracy, SPRU, University of Sussex) - talked about the relationship between science and policy.

Professor Wilsdon opened the symposium and introduced the audience to the world of science and policy, providing ideas and practical solutions for graduates wanting to engage in the policy process as well as opportunities in the space between science and policy.

“This first talk really set the scene for the delegates, many of whom had not previously considered the relationship between science and policy, let alone their position within it. It laid the foundations for the later talks, informal conversations and further opportunities in policy being presented,” explained Harry Armstrong, one of the organisers of SymBLS.

Poster sessions enabled participants to present their data not only to other students and speakers, but crucially facilitated the more rare opportunity to discuss their research and its implications with industry and government.

“These sessions were very engaging and highly valuable to both the graduates and policy makers who both took away a greater appreciation of each sector’s work. The graduate students immensely enjoyed having the opportunity to present their work to an engaged, less specialised audience from government and to be exposed to a completely different way of thinking,” said Armstrong.

The symposium provided an opportunity for government to hear about research that could have particular relevance to policy. For example, research to understand the mechanisms of circadian clocks in plants is of interest to the department of transport in ensuring train safety during drivers’ night shifts.

Graham Pendlebury, director of greener transport and international, Department for Transport said: “The presentations and the conversations that I had with some of the presenters, the poster designers and other postgrads attending the event brought home to me the cutting edge nature of the research being done by young research teams in Cambridge and the passionate enthusiasm they have for their work – immensely impressive. There were also fields of research that I could see had real relevance for government and industry as they develop.”

Professor Douglas Kell talked about his role as chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which provides strategic funding to the Babraham Institute.

He emphasised the importance of questioning preconceived ideas so as not to rely on unsupported established facts - a vital philosophy for those working in science and policy alike.

Further opportunities to get involved in policy, such as the professional development courses at the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy and the new Cambridge Society CUSPE (Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange), generated enthusiasm among delegates.

Dr Claire Cockcroft, head of external relations at the Babraham Institute said: “I’m delighted that Babraham students have taken the lead in creating such an impressive symposium – one that brings together young researchers with both industry and government to explore the relationship between science and policy.

“The discussions provided students with a greater appreciation of how scientific advice is incorporated into policy-making and a deeper understanding of the societal, ethical and commercial context in which science operates, valuable insights that may also shape their careers.”

The symposium concluded with Sir Mark Walport, highlighting current advances in science and technology, the future of funding from the Wellcome Trust for researches at all levels, the myriad of opportunities that are available to early career researches as well as discussing policy, open access journals and his future position as the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

The one-day symposium provided an unrivalled opportunity for Cambridge postgraduates to engage with science, policy and the policy makers themselves. Networking and discussions continued well into the night with delegates thinking in new ways about how science can contribute to policy-making and for some, seeds were sown for a new career direction.

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC (left) with Halima Khan Director of the Public Services Lab, NESTA and Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy, Cambridge and Prof James Wilsdon of SPRU, University of Sussex (right). Image: SymBLS/Nelly Olova

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