Since starting work in the Sustainable Futures Research Team at the Welsh Government I have been involved in a vast range of projects and topic areas. The team covers housing, culture, and environment research – some pretty meaty topics for just four people! Due to the diverse nature of our work I have had to adapt quickly to get a grasp of these policy areas. One of the hardest challenges was getting my head around policy on planning consenting regimes for infrastructure projects – a topic that I still don’t really understand.
There are several challenges that we face in the Sustainable Futures Team due to the varying nature of our work. In order to describe these, I’ll briefly explain the beginning of the research process and the role social researchers have in policy making. Just to note, our role in the development of policy is just one stage in a very extensive complicated process. This publication by the British Ecological Society gives a nice clear introduction to policy in the UK, describing the different stages of the process (https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/An-introduction-to-policymaking-in-the-UK.pdf).
When producing or changing policy, policy makers have to ensure their decisions are evidence based (ideally…this may not always happen in practice). This means they need existing or new research to support their decisions. Policy colleagues get in touch with us (the researchers) when they need new research to inform a policy decision (sometimes they may be surprised by the findings). A meeting takes place between policy teams and researchers where policy discuss what they want from the research, confirming their aims and objectives.
At this point I’ve encountered challenges. If working solely in education research, although this is a broad area, researchers will most likely be able to become experts in this topic. For me, in the Sustainable Research Team, it feels as if in every scoping meeting I’ve been in, I’ve been on the back foot, trying to get my head around a new policy area and figure out the best way to carry out research.
At first I felt uncomfortable, feeling like I didn’t know enough about anything. But then, I realised that as a researcher, I don’t have to be an expert on every policy topic, that’s the job of the policy teams. As a researcher, my role is to be an expert on research methods, and finding the best ways to achieve the research outcomes. As long as I make it clear to policy colleagues that I am unfamiliar with the topic and communicate clearly with them, then everything should flow nicely.
If anything, for me as a placement student, being in a team where we cover a range of areas is ideal. I get to experience a number of different policy areas rather than working in one particular field. Some examples of the varying topics I’ve been involved with over the last 7 months are: housing supply, Brexit, single use carrier bags, household energy use, genetic modification, local regeneration, and museums’ collections.
Despite the challenging aspects of working in diverse policy areas, I think I’d much rather this style of work where I don’t know what new topic I’ll be faced with next. As one of my colleagues said to me when I started my placement “you get paid to learn”. She was so right, we get paid to learn about exciting new topics that will influence the future of Wales.