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I am a PhD student, why is science policy important to me?

Jessie Hitchcock

Jessie Hitchcock

Making a difference isn’t just about getting answers in the lab — it’s also about negotiating the structures that turn research results into reality. Jessie Hitchcock, a PhD student at the MRC/University of Birmingham Centre for Immune Regulation, is in the middle of an internship run by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the MRC. She tells us how she’ll be taking her new-found knowledge of science policy back to the lab. 

For me, the best part of research is when it gets exciting — you get a completely unexpected result, or you finish that experiment your boss has been pestering you about for weeks and you suddenly realise why it was so crucial.

In my research, I study invasive Salmonella infections. These bacteria get into the bloodstream and kill around a quarter of children under two who are infected with them in Africa. To find out why so many children die, I look at what the infection does to mice.

Every little piece of data I get — from both experiments that work and from those that don’t go the way we would expect — leads me ever so slightly closer to finding out how Salmonella kills so many children in developing countries. I find it really exciting, and it’s great to see how science can make a big difference.

But what I didn’t appreciate was that there are a whole host of rules and regulations ‘behind the scenes’ that can have a massive impact on how my research is used.

For example, to me, publishing research on an open access basis has always seemed like a no brainer — if more people can access research, then the more useful it is. But while I’ve been at the Academy of Medical Sciences, I’ve had to consider the issue from all angles. What effect will open access publishing have on peer-review and editorial quality? Might I be forced to publish in a lower impact journal because I can’t afford to pay to make my paper openly accessible?

Then I started thinking about the proposed changes to the Data Protection Directive that the European parliament are discussing. This new regulation aims to strengthen public privacy, but if the revisions go through, epidemiological researchers might not be able to access all the data required for their work.

Another key issue is improving the availability of clinical trial results, which is being addressed by a House of Commons inquiry. Non-publication of data has implications for many researchers as well as clinicians and patients: how would you feel if you had worked for years on something only to discover that it had been tried before, but didn’t work and nobody had published the data?

These are just some of the issues which today’s policy-makers are working on to ensure that mine and my fellow researchers’ studies can progress and be shared so that they can become part of healthcare.

But what I think has been really valuable about my internship experience is that I’ll be able to use this policy knowledge to my advantage. If I find out not just how Salmonella kills children, but also what can be done to prevent it, I’ll know more about how to make my research findings visible, helping to get them translated into treatments that save lives.

I’ll know who the right people are to influence and I’ll know how to communicate with them so that they understand the implications of my data. And I’ll know how to communicate with the public so that they can trust that their taxes are being used for something that they can be proud of.

Jessie Hitchcock

The policy internship scheme is run by the Academy of Medical Sciences in conjunction with the MRC, and aims to give MRC-funded PhD students the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of a medical policy environment in the third or fourth year of their PhD studies.

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