Science Policy at the Francis Crick Institute

  • 15 April 2020
  • General
  • Helena Brown

The current coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we live and forcing us to adapt, in a way many of us have never had to before.

Scientists also face a collective task as they try to navigate this new challenge. Evidence is also back on the political agenda. The Chief Scientific Adviser is now a familiar face to many. As is his counterpart, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty.

Communication is a crucial part of most scientists’ jobs. Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute give talks and engage in activities to explain their science to the public. This is alongside their experiments and papers. It’s an important part of the work we do at the Crick.

Science policy is all about bridging the gap between scientists and policymakers. Our job is to support Crick scientists to translate their work for a policy audience. This helps to draw out the lessons and messages that are important. This can be around their science, their personal journey through science or any policy barriers they experience in conducting their research.

We are keen to get as many different voices as possible speaking on our behalf. We were proud to have one of the Crick’s Laboratory Research Scientists, Joana Carvalho, speaking about immigration issues on the Today programme. Joana is early in her career and spoke with confidence and clarity.

The policy team at the Crick focus on providing opportunities for scientists to engage with policymakers and the public; whether this is on the radio or at Westminster.

Last year, the team from the Science and Technology Committee toured the Crick’s labs. They met experts in genome editing and learnt about the Crick’s Worldwide Influenza Centre, from its Assistant Director, Ruth Harvey. It is one of only six centres globally. The team are responsible for analysing influenza viruses circulating in the human population and the centre is overseen by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva.

As part of our ongoing work to encourage diverse voices to participate in the policy environment, we held a session with expert speakers sharing insights on the influencing environment. More than 40 Crick scientists attended from Senior Group Leaders to scientists at the start of their career; those who run and work in our science technology platforms; PhD students at the Crick and postdocs.

They heard from Danielle Nash (Science and Technology Committee Clerk), Iain Mansfield (former special advisor, and Science lead at the Policy Exchange think tank) and Dr Sarah Wollaston (former Chair of the Health and Liaison committees and former MP).

The purpose of the event was to highlight the different ways scientists can influence policy. Learning more about select committees means that when a relevant inquiry arises (perhaps on the subject of genome editing, for example) Crick scientists understand how they might be able to get involved and inform this work.

The panel explained the importance of avoiding jargon when giving evidence in person and always being concise, confining evidence to one page where possible. They also suggested it was a good idea to find out who your own MP is if you don’t already know. It’s a great first step in understanding the policy world.

We have also been building our internal channels to build a community of Crick scientists who are really engaged on the latest policy issues. We use the social media tool, Slack, to keep scientists up to date with what is happening at Westminster and beyond. Around 90 Crick staff have joined this channel already. We’ve been delighted to see members sharing their own policy updates too.

Bridging these two very different worlds together is important. There has never been a more crucial time for us to recognise how much scientists can contribute to how society is governed. From PhD students to Professors, all can play a part. As the UK continues its battle against a virus that knows no boundaries. We, at the Crick, know there is an important role for science policy. When scientists communicate with policymakers, we can find answers and solutions even sooner.

Image by Fiona Hanson (2016)

Helena Brown is the Policy & Public Affairs Officer at The Francis Crick Institute.