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January 22, 2013

UCL to set up science policy department

Miriam Frankel

University College London is to set up a department of science, technology and engineering policy in September this year.

Research Fortnight understands that the plans were prompted by a bid by researchers at the University of Sussex’s science and technology policy research unit SPRU to transfer en masse to UCL. However, after months of negotiations UCL decided to set up its own department rather than taking on the unit and its core faculty of around 30 wholesale.

Anthony Finkelstein, UCL’s dean of engineering, says the initial plan for the department is to hire up to 20 academics at all levels, with “significant recruitments” this year and next, and with further hires in each of the next five years.

“We may be approaching particular individuals across the UK, but we will also be openly advertising,” says Finkelstein. “Clearly there are many excellent people at Sussex, as there are at some other universities.”

Finkelstein says the department is expected to have a total budget of about £5 million per year and will absorb UCL’s existing Centre for Engineering Policy, led by Brian Collins, former chief scientific adviser to the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is not yet clear whether other UCL academics will also transfer, but the university has confirmed that the existing Department of Science and Technology Studies will remain an independent unit.

Finkelstein says the department will have a “broad global remit and provide access to specialist material from across UCL”. Plans include setting up a course aimed at policy professionals, including civil servants. “We will be looking carefully at innovative initiatives such as the fellowships at the Centre for Science and Policy Studies [in Cambridge],” he adds.

The group is also expected to work closely with other UCL departments. “We will develop a significant teaching activity and we will also have an interdisciplinary research institute which spreads out beyond the department,” adds Finkelstein.

The department will open just a month before the census date for the Research Excellence Framework, meaning UCL can capitalise on the past work of any research star it draws in to the new department. But, insists Finkelstein, “it’s not just about the REF”. For example, he says, not all staff will be hired in time for the exercise. In addition, having a brand new department could make it difficult to produce case studies to contribute to the impact component of the REF, which looks at past work and will count for 20 per cent of the assessment.  

Instead, he argues, the move into science policy is natural for a university such as UCL, which has “world-class science and engineering…and a full disciplinarily spectrum”.

“We are in the centre of London, close to the focal point for…the civil service, the government, the media and the judiciary. So we are where policy is made,” he says.

In addition, he says, there is a “change-the-world ethos” deeply engrained in “UCL’s DNA”. “That requires people who are able to translate between policy and the underlying science.”


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