DEFRA placement experience by James Rand

Posted in: WISE CDT

The UKRI run a series of fully funded Policy Internships for PhD students each year to work for a selected group of highly influential policy organisations. Internships last 3-months and placements can range from working with Government Departments, for the Devolved Governments, Learned Societies and non-governmental organisations. I was awarded a 3-month internship to work with DEFRA. Whilst it will vary between organisations, DEFRA aligned my placement with my PhD topic area and placed me with their water evidence team. The purpose of this group is to research and provide evidence so that water related policy can be developed and presented to government.

With a new government in place, leaving the European Union, Climate Change high up the agenda and a 25 Year Environment Plan to deliver, the water evidence team is busy researching flood and water quality evidence to help both drive and deliver future policy. The big focus within the small team I was working for, was meeting the highly aspirational targets of the 25 Year Plan and driving the UKs replacement for the Water Framework Directive (WFD) to be more systems driven (food, energy and water nexus), focusing on continuous improvement rather than just monitoring fairly mediocre targets and being bold and aspirational.

With a countrywide choice of office locations (it is all hot desking and remote meetings - great preparation for lockdown !), I worked from either my local Environment Agency office in the centre of Bristol or from home. Virtually all the people on the evidence and policy teams have a PhD (from a very diverse range of subjects and backgrounds) and the civil service employ a high percentage of Doctors to be the brains behind the “thinking” in government.

Predominantly working with researchers from the Environment Agency, I was given an independent and self-contained  task to examine government funded, water related research over the last 10 years in order to pull out relevant evidence to support “The Water Story”. “The Water Story” is an evidence-based narrative of everything concerning water quality, from international agreements, results of policy decisions, blue space initiatives, working practices, intended and unintended consequences from the past, present and future. During my internship I was also tasked with producing rapid evidence reviews of small parts of “The Water Story” to support briefings as required.

The output of my work, combine with the much greater body of evidence from a review of water related literature (6 months full time for 2 researchers) will be progressively distilled eventually into bite size bits of water quality research and proposed policy that even Government ministers can understand and make evidenced based decision on.

The review process that I used for conducting my search for evidence is contained in the document - The Production of Quick Scoping Reviews and Rapid Evidence Assessments, December 2015, Collins, Coughlin, Miller and Kirk, NERC ( This formalised process ensures that evidence in the literature is gathered and reviewed in a systematic way that can then be used to produce a comprehensive narrative account of the research subject. It is certainly a document and process that every PhD student should consider using – in the 2 weeks since leaving DEFRA I have used it to fully conduct my PhD literature review which for me will mean less time in front of a laptop, more time on the fun stuff like building equipment and getting out on lakes conducting experiments.

Whilst lockdown prevented me from shadowing the Government Chief Scientist, witnessing parliamentary committees and presenting to senior civil servants (all part of the normal internship experience) the work was interesting, gives a great insight into the working of government and provides another possible avenue of employment on completion of my PhD. Fully funded and attracting a 3-month funding extension to your PhD I would recommend the UKRI internship to  understand how government works and where your UKRI state funded PhD research fits in as it is used to drive national policy.

James Rand

7 May 2020

Posted in: WISE CDT


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