Policy Officer: Ben Bleasdale
Dr Ben Bleasdale
Policy Officer at the Academy of Medical Sciences
Length of career
Career in brief
Being incapable of deciding whether I enjoyed biology or chemistry more, I opted to study biochemistry (‘science for the indecisive’) as an undergraduate. My course at the University of Oxford included a built-in Masters, which gave me my first experience of microscopy during a project studying the nerve cells of fruit flies.
I continued down that path after university, securing a research position in a lab in the United States, where I spent a year investigating how the kidney filters blood, using high-powered electron microscopes. I considered staying to do a PhD, but the much more compact UK PhD timescale drew me back to UK shores and I was delighted to be awarded an MRC-funded place at Imperial College, choosing a research project which used microscopes to track the assembly of new viruses inside infected cells.
During the PhD I took advantage of the many public engagement opportunities on offer ― visiting locals schools, participating in the Science Uncovered night at the Natural History Museum, and entering lots of different science writing competitions. One of these was the MRC’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award, and I was lucky enough to make the shortlist. It was a fantastic experience, and spurred me on to further attempts at taking my research beyond the laboratory walls.
As I approached the end of my PhD, I was strongly considering continuing as a researcher, but also saw an opportunity to apply for an internship scheme supported by the MRC, to work at the Academy of Medical Sciences. This three-month scheme allowed me to join the small but extremely busy team at the academy, and to contribute to a huge range of science policy projects. The experience was a real eye-opener to careers beyond the lab which made use of my research experience in a different way.
From the lab, I applied for a position in the communications team at the MRC, which placed me in charge of organising the very same Max Perutz Award I’d entered the previous year. It was great fun to be the other side of the fence and to see just how much the researchers, judges and MRC staff all enjoyed diving into the competition. It was extremely challenging to switch from managing a research project to managing an event, but it really helped me develop new skills.
Since then I’ve moved to a new role, working within the policy team at the Academy of Medical Sciences. My job here involves working alongside other organisations in the research sector, including public funding bodies (such as the MRC), charities and international organisations, to harness the expertise of the Academy’s fellows to influence policy-makers in the UK and Brussels. This can involve anything from face-to-face meetings, to organising workshops and symposia to discuss key issues, or producing public statements which you can find on our website.
I spend my days...
My job involves regular visits to other organisations, especially the other UK national academies. I work with their policy teams to organise joint approaches to new policy challenges, or produce documents setting out the views of our fellows. When I’m not out pacing the pavement, my role is office-based and I spend the majority of my week at my desk working on new documents or organising events. New policy issues arise almost constantly, so I have to be able to juggle several overlapping projects at once, which ensures things stay interesting!
I’ve been lucky so far in having a lot of variety in the types of jobs I’ve done, each of which has come with its own rewarding challenges. However, looking back, I would certainly say that watching the Max Perutz Science Writing Competition 2014 coming together, from its very beginnings to the big awards ceremony, was a real joy. The contestants, judges and MRC staff who all dived in with enthusiasm made all the hard work worthwhile, and it was great to feel I was paying a little something back for the great experience I’d had as a contestant myself the previous year.
Switching from a relatively focused and self-driven research project, to juggling several competing areas of work as part of a cooperating team has been a big change. I’m lucky to work with a fantastic group of people, but sometimes have to remind myself to keep sharing what I’m working on so that everyone can keep up to speed and provide support where possible.
Skills I need to do my job
My job draws heavily on skills I learned during my PhD, which was a major feature attracting me to the role. Researching new policy topics is a major part of my schedule, so it helps to be comfortable reading academic literature, especially as each topic can be wildly different from the last. As an academy, our actions are driven by evidence and the experience of our Fellows, so it’s important to have good communication skills and an ability to produce strong, clear and concise writing.
Words of wisdom
Simply, not to be afraid to take a totally new direction. I was hesitant to leave academia, partly for fear of starting afresh in a totally new field, and partly because I felt I’d miss the lab. Whilst it’s true that the move does leave me occasionally longing for a pipette, I’ve found the change in perspective has refreshed my enjoyment of research and let me try my hand at totally new challenges.
There are many opportunities for continuing to work in science policy, either outside government or within the Civil Service. Each new organisation has a different perspective from the last, so I hope I can keep finding new challenges for many years to come.
@Ben_Bleasdale on Twitter
Correct as of: July 2015