Carl Anton Larsen (image thecoldestjourney.org)
Earlier last year a new emperor penguin colony was discovered but it appears they may not actually be that new.
In 1893, the explorer Carl Anton Larsen reported what is thought to have been the first sighting of emperor penguins in the area that is now known after him as the Larsen ice shelves. However, this sighting had never been verified until recent satellite images found a colony on the Larsen C ice shelf. It is thought that these are the same colony and are permanently established on the ice shelf, unlike two other colonies who have recently been reported to be moving onto ice shelves due to changes in the development of their natural habitat, sea ice.
This is especially exciting for me as the Larsen C ice shelf is the one my work is based on. For better or for worse it is much easier for me to put my work into context if I tell people about penguins losing their homes than sea level rise, although one of these may be a much bigger problem for us in the long term.
Just over two weeks ago I temporarily left Reading to start a 3 month policy placement at the Government Office of Science (‘GO Science’), funded by my research council. I’ll write more about my experiences of working for the government soon but as the call has now gone out for the next round of applications for placements now seems the perfect time to reflect on what I’m actually doing and why.
The scheme allows PhD students to take time away from research and work within an institution that deals with policy, either in a parliamentary sense such as being at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, or somewhere more general such as the British Library or the Royal Society.
So why did I want to do this? My motivation was for two reasons. Firstly, I just wanted to see where the science that gets done actually goes; what difference does it make and how? A lot of research is funded by the tax payer so it’s very easy to question what the point of it is if it then doesn’t feed into the bigger picture. Secondly it is to see what other careers are out there. I’m certain I want to stay in research and will do whatever I can to make that happen, but realistically it’s an unstable career and there are fewer and fewer jobs the further up the ladder you go. One thing that’s really surprised me about GO Science is the amount of people that have done one or more post docs, or are doing temporary policy placements within an academic career. After all, our big boss, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walpot, is able to do his job through the virtue of having had a long and successful scientific career.
For any PhD students reading this and thinking of applying to the scheme, I can’t recommend it enough. Even only two weeks in it has been a great experience, and through the process of applying and a huge long interview day I’ve met lots of past placement holders all of whom have been incredibly enthusiastic regardless of whether or not it left them wanting a career in policy- the skills you will gain will help you whatever you do in life and being aware of the bigger picture can never be a bad thing. I’d also say if you’re nervous about asking your supervisor about doing a placement don’t be, I was but my supervisor was almost a bit too supportive (keen to have a break from me…?)! A lot of academics do understand that a) not everyone wants a research career and b) it’s still good for scientists to see other things sometimes. A massive bonus of it being research council funded is that they just keep paying you and your PhD automatically gets extended by 3 months with minimum hassle.
Any of these could be your workplace next year!
In terms of placement choices I’m probably biased in that I already think GO Science is great. It’s really varied, you feel a part of the team very quickly and there are tonnes of interesting things to work on and talk about. POST seemed to be the most popular choice last year- you get a glamorous parliamentary pass and will almost certainly work on a POST note which will then be the resource for MPs wanting to read about that area of science, although I was put off by doing something so specific. Working for the Welsh Parliament seemed to be more about answering questions from ministers- I met someone who liked it so much she went back there after handing in her PhD.
However, the most enthusiastic people I’ve met where those at the Centre for Science and Policy in Cambridge and the Royal Society- so pretty much wherever you go it seems you get a great experience. Applications are due by the 28th August so what are you waiting for?