Reflecting back on the last year, considering that we were muddling through a global pandemic and adapting to life working at home (trying not to let the pets/children join in on all our meetings), I am amazed at the fantastic range of activities that the Foundation for Science and Technology (S&T) Future Leaders programme (FFL) has had to offer. Being part of this community has been a really great experience and opportunity, so I thought I would share my personal journey and hopefully encourage others to sign up to the conference and apply to the FFL 2022 cohort.
Like last year, this year’s conference agenda includes talks from some of the UK’s most senior and respected leaders and some of my amazing FFL colleagues. It covers a range of topics and, based on my experiences attending previous FFL events, I am confident it will be a fantastic experience.
However, thinking back to this time last year, if I were able to print my internal dialogue, it would probably read something like this…
So if you are currently asking yourself any of these questions, don’t worry, that is ok.
I would instead recommend that you look at your career, your life experiences, and your strengths. Personally, I looked at my personal and professional strengths, alongside my strong aspirations to become a senior leader, and just went for it (what do you have to lose).
Perhaps ask yourself, are you interested in Science and Technology? Do you enjoy discussing S&T challenges? Do you love to ask questions, understand the detail and then discuss the bigger picture? Do you want to be part of a community of brilliant and diverse individuals?
Don’t feel like you need to be in a ‘senior’ position to apply…if you are on your 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th post doc, great! But if you have taken some time out of science, or like me, moved around in your career, please feel empowered to apply. For example, since graduating from my PhD in Biochemistry, I have worked in a number of areas, including clinical trial management and agrichemical research, and more recently for government at Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). The unique experiences I have had across a range of companies, disciplines and sectors have helped me relate to the academics on the cohort and the challenges of scientific research and university culture and practices. I have understood the different angles and pressures of FFL colleagues working in S&T business/industry and now working in government, I understand the importance of ensuring S&T is at the forefront to protect our nation. So when I was recently asked by a colleague interested in signing up for the 2022 cohort, “what grade/career level should I be?” I confidently reassured them that their leadership aspirations, experiences and broad interest in learning more about S&T is, in my opinion, more important than your job title/grade.
Skipping ahead to joining the programme, after feeling every bit of imposters syndrome possible applying to be a ‘Future Leader’, I submitted my application and was accepted onto the cohort. I was one of 10 civil servants, 10 academics and 10 industry professionals on the programme. Over the year, I have participated in a wide range of FFL events, where all the speakers were not only superb and first rate leaders, they also communicated to a broad audience and really engaged everyone in the Q&A sessions- including answering my questions! I thrived in the sessions, not only were they discussing interesting topics at the forefront, in the news, but their answers were honest and open. The sessions felt like a scientific conversation rather than a stuffy science presentation that I am sure we all have experienced one time or the other.
Since starting my secondment in Dstl’s Strategy and S&T Planning team, I have found the FFL conversations on all aspects of R&D, its challenges and developments, very valuable for assessing our own strategic drivers. Attending events focused on UK strategies, such as the Innovation Strategy and People and Culture Strategy, were not only great to hear first-hand the improvements the UK is aiming to make, but helped me think about how these strategies may impact Dstl and the wider defence enterprise. The conversations I have had and the connections I have made, have not only improved my understanding of the broader S&T landscape, but have also enhanced my confidence to ‘lean in’ and be part of the conversation with senior colleagues and leaders. Personally, the biggest message I took was from the Principal of Strathclyde University, who was incredibly open about the challenges of senior leadership, and emphasised the importance of being your authentic self. As a young woman, working in male dominant industries, I have learnt how important it is to realise your worth, lean in and not be scared to be yourself.
Stepping away from the details of my own journey, I would like to focus on what you may gain from applying. We all see on our news streams the wide range of global environmental, health, political and defence and security challenges the world faces today. The FFL discusses the strategic drivers, strategies and initiatives the UK government are creating to address them. For example, we discussed the people, skills and culture required to drive our current, next generation and generation after next R&D. We also discussed environmental impact and how we might get to Net Zero. We discussed Covid-19, the impacts on mental health and the future for vaccine development. We have spoken about science advice and its influence on UK policy with senior leaders in government and members of parliament. We have looked at future S&T direction in areas such as Space and high risk-high reward innovation, such as the new Advanced Research and Inventions Agency.
The programme provides a wide variety of activities and more recently we have been able to meet in person and visit Harwell, one of the UK’s leading science and innovation campus, and the UK Parliament. Alongside this we have made an instant messaging group, monthly drop in sessions, set up monthly coffee connects and ran focused sessions on research diversity and inclusion. Since a few of us work in defence, we also independently organised a defence and security session. As a group, we confidently reached out to senior defence leaders across industry and the Ministry of Defence to ask them to come and speak with the community and as a result we had fantastic conversations and made new connections.
Over the year we have discussed (and put the world to right on) how S&T is vital for UK prosperity, resilience and wellbeing, and how Science Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education, research and communication is key for addressing our national and global challenges. We discussed how academia, industry and government work together to share knowledge/best practices, collaborate and innovate, which are all key things to help the UK move towards the prime ministers ambition of becoming a ‘Science Superpower’.
Having a broad awareness of S&T strategic drivers, and leading diverse and inclusive conversations about our R&D is important for current and future leaders. I think the work the FFL programme is doing to improve understanding and communication across academia, industry and government is great. I will be sad to ‘graduate’ this year! Although, we do plan to keep in touch and continue our own informal network, so watch this space….
I hope you enjoy the conference and feel empowered to apply for the 2022 cohort!
Dr Carlanne Stone is Strategy and S&T Planning Assistant at the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).