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What’s our Policy on That? Reflections on the UKRI Policy Internship | Jack Smith

Updated: May 20, 2022

The Entrance to The Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace, London. (Wikimedia)

I recently completed the 3-month UKRI Policy Internship and thought it would be useful to share my thoughts on my experience for anyone thinking of applying or doing something similar. In this post I will describe what I did for the internship, what policy is and what goes into policy work, whether I recommend the internship, and how best to go about the application.

My Internship

From the beginning of February to the end of April, I interned with The Royal Society (RS) in London. The RS is the UK’s national academy of science and is the oldest national royal society of science in the world (1660) with around 1800 of the world’s most accomplished scientists as current fellows.

The RS has a science policy division whose job it is to analyse recent scientific developments and translate them into policy positions held by the fellowship of the society, with the implication that others, such as national governments, should adopt the same positions. I was placed within the Resilient Futures team (one of their four main policy teams) and worked with the Emerging Technologies and Futures (Emtech) sub-team where I was given responsibility for project managing their in-house horizon scanning programme. Horizon scanning is the process of looking for early warning signs of change in the policy and strategy environment and is embedded within Futures research. Alongside this, I helped with the development of the Emtech team’s main work stream (that’s right, I say “work stream” now) on space science and technology leading up to 2050. Since the pandemic, the RS has operated a hybrid-working system, so there was no need to move to London for the internship. Instead, I worked from home (Norwich) and commuted down to London once a week while also attending some events and workshops in person.

What is Policy and what is policy work?

Policy simply refers to any intended course of action that can be carried out, or stated principles held, by an individual or organisation. The main focus of the RS is to identify the upcoming areas and target issues in science and technology that society and governments may need help with translating into policy. However, most positions available on the UKRI policy internship are within government itself, in the civil service. In that context, the focus is more on figuring out how the political positions held by the government can be translated into action, alongside informing the government of what policy options are available and even advising as to which ones should be adopted. Policy work can be broken down into two main components: research – to figure out which policy to adopt; and advocacy – networking and influencing to advance the adopted policy.

The Welcome Trust Lecture Hall, Royal Society. The RS is home to excellent conference and venue facilities. Useful for holding events that help promote and advocate policy positions, and science in general. (The Royal Society)

Do I recommend the policy internship?

Put simply, yes, I definitely recommend the UKRI Policy Internship. This is mainly because it’s tailored to you, your needs, and what you can contribute. As part of the application, you are encouraged to state exactly what you are interested in and how you think engaging in the internship will help advance that interest. Straight from the get-go, my team at the RS helped me to work out what time of the year would be best to sit the internship. It turned out that was straight away because they wanted to start developing the horizon scanning programme as soon as possible. I had it in my mind that I would do the internship much later in the year, and had scheduled for such, so this meant I had to adjust everything for an immediate start. But I’m glad I took the plunge and dived-in as I was able to learn a number of key takeaways that could be applied to my research utilising Futures techniques.

Additionally, by understanding my skills and work, they were able to place me in a team that I could really contribute to. My PhD centres on marine governance for which there is a lot of overlap with the governance of space (one of the main areas of focus within my team at the RS) which meant I was able to be more active, make intelligent contributions in meetings, and really help with the process of developing the project. Another huge benefit of my internship was the chance to build upon and expand my network outside of academia, and I made a couple of key connections who I plan to contact for help and advice in the near future.

Advice for the Application

There’s a lot of general advice out there for job and internship applications and there’s no point in repeating the general stuff here. The main thing I want to emphasise is what I think got my foot in the door – I gave them a reason to pick me by doing part of the work for them. The host has to slot you into a team and a project, which is actually quite difficult. So, the best way to get in is to make yourself seem ideal for one of these projects; to make it easy for them to slot you in somewhere. I applied to the RS, and I had the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) as my back-up, because, when researching the options available, it was clear that they utilised Futures techniques, which I myself was just starting to implement in my own work. So, my argument to them in the application and interview was simply that I wanted to benefit from being around the application of these future methods. This then gave me a hook they could use to slot me in.

So, you have to really dig deep into what you could potentially get out of the internship by researching the options and how they could relate either to your research or your desired career path. Then construct an argument for your application around that. Importantly, you have to emphasise both what you could get out of it but also, in turn, that you can make great contributions because it lies in your area of interest and perhaps even your expertise (it’s all about give and take). But take note, a large part of it is luck – it just so happened that the RS was engaging in their horizon scanning programme this year for which I was ideal. If they’d done it last year, or were planning on doing it next year, I may very well have been overlooked in the application process. This is the main reason why you shouldn’t take it personally if you apply and don’t get it. But don’t let that deter you, it’s definitely worth throwing your hat in.



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