By Dr Sarah Main
A year ago, in the middle of the London 2012 Olympic Games, I walked in to the peculiarly empty offices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Having taken its commitment to halve the number of civil servants working from central London seriously, most BIS staff were operating from off-site locations. I soon came to realise that securing a desk in the heart of the Knowledge and Innovation Group at BIS was not normally so easy.
For nine months, I was part of a team that was gathering evidence on the impact of public investment in science and research. The scope of the team’s work included efficiencies in higher education, the dual funding model, the impact of science and research on local economies and, the strand on which I worked, leverage. The report, Leverage from public funding of science and research, published on the RCUK website, examines how public funding of science and research leverages additional investment from industry, charity and overseas.
We worked from within the Innovation Directorate with close links to the Research Funding Unit and had access to input and expertise from across the science and research functions of BIS and Whitehall: the Government Office for Science, Office of Life Sciences, Higher and Further Education, UKTI, International Knowledge and Innovation and many more.
At times, the work could feel rather abstract: collating and commissioning data to answer questions that had not yet been asked for a ‘review’ that had not yet been called.
But I believe the approach was entirely vindicated by the availability of well-researched and compiled evidence with which to support key messages at short notice.
It will not surprise you to learn that when Treasury or Ministers ask challenging questions, the response time is measured in days or hours, not weeks. And certainly not in the months it takes to thoroughly research some of these difficult questions. When the pressure is on, delivering strong messages backed up by substantive evidence has real impact.
For the conclusions on leverage, I refer you to the report. For those short of time, I suggest the contents page for the scope of the report (page 2) and the four page executive summary. I also commend to you my colleague Sarah Jackson’s report on efficiencies in higher education.
I will leave you with my top tips for dealing with enquiries from officials in Knowledge and Innovation Group at BIS.
- BIS is complex. The civil service even more so. Ask questions until you understand the structure and reporting lines in to which you are feeding information
- Forgive them the time pressure. It is applied to them from many directions and usually from high above.
- Keep it short and to the point. Officials will appreciate it if they don’t have to spend time summarising responses.
- Understand the context of the question. An enquiry you receive often forms only one element of a multi-stranded response. If your response fits the broader context it is more likely to be useful and be used. Pitching at the national, economic and cross-discipline level is probably not far off.
- Perhaps the best kept secret: these officials are our champions in government. Be friendly – they are on our side!
Dr Sarah Main is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. She was previously seconded to BIS from the Medical Research Council (MRC).