Getting to the bottom of medical science policy
What exactly is medical science policy? And how can researchers influence it? Heather Bailey is a PhD student at the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health at University College London. She took three months out of her studies to delve into science policy by participating in an internship programme run by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the MRC.
Policy can be something of a black box to scientists so the most remarkable aspect of my internship experience was the opportunity to become familiar with the variety of people and organisations involved in shaping medical policy in the UK.
From patients to professors, from trade unions to charities, I had no idea of the breadth of roles and approaches for getting medical issues onto the political agenda. I particularly valued the opportunity to be involved with the policy work of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a focal point for leading scientists to influence UK government decision-making on both current issues and in anticipation of future priorities.
For my PhD I am studying HIV in women in Ukraine. To learn about influencing medical policy in Ukraine, I spent a week with ECOHOST, a research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This group’s work has shown that out-of-pocket payments to see a doctor in Ukraine are common and often unaffordable to those who most need care. As with so many medical policy problems, this has complex economic, social and political roots — an understanding of which is essential for effective medical policy reform.
High in every scientist’s mind is the need to show the value of their research — to scientific peers, their university, funders, patients and the tax-payer. In the latter stages of a PhD, it is also important to be able to demonstrate the value of your research to yourself! During the internship, I gained an insight into just how different the skills required to communicate well with each of these groups are, from the vocabulary you use to the perspective you bring. Perhaps one of the most valuable elements of the internship has been in thinking about how research is understood and valued outside of academia. During my week with the MRC Communications team, I learnt about the importance of a good analogy in explaining scientific concepts, and the dangers of a bad one!
I was particularly struck at a workshop on the use of patient data that patients are often less averse to their data being used for medical research than their doctors imagine. The generosity of patients in giving of their time, data or biological samples is the foundation upon which much medical research rests. Implicit in this is the understanding that we can make better medical policy as a result — a process with which I hope I will now be better able to engage.
The policy internship scheme is run by the Academy of Medical Sciences in conjunction with the MRC and the Wellcome Trust, to give MRC and Wellcome Trust-funded PhD students the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of a medical policy environment in the last year of their PhD studies.