How did you get into science?
I became fascinated by everything ‘space’ at an early age. At secondary school, I saw a NASA Space Shuttle launch on TV and my heart was set on becoming a scientist. Studying physics and space science at university was great fun. During my PhD studies, I met the world’s experts on the aurora, and learnt a huge amount from them as I analysed spacecraft data to explore the space-based triggers of the most beautiful light show you will ever see on earth. One of my fondest moments as a scientist was purely random – at a conference in northern Finland, I left my colleagues debating the latest space research developments to prepare for the presentation I was delivering the next day… the snow stopped, the clouds parted, and the northern lights shone brightly, so I laid down on the fresh snow and enjoyed the moment.
After my studies, I became a spacecraft systems engineer. This was when I really got to grips with understanding customer requirements. I explored design trade-offs while trying to maximise benefits for the customer.
It was the satisfaction of working on complex challenges that made the civil service very appealing. I saw an opportunity to join the Government Operational Research Service and the wider analytical community, so I jumped at it. I was able to translate my scientific problem-solving skills and work on complex policy and operational delivery challenges, which is hugely satisfying.
How has your experience working within the analytical community helped you in your current role?
During my time in the civil service, I’ve worked in several departments on topics as diverse as modelling the impact of school-funding policy options through to developing business cases to support large transformation programmes. While I’ve been a member of the Government Operational Research Service throughout, securing the expertise and value-add from the other analytical professions has been vital: each profession brings a different set of tools to a given problem and an alternative perspective can really make the difference. During my last analytical role, I worked closely with the Home Office’s scientific community to bring together the latest science understanding on Covid-19 and the operational modelling expertise within the Home Office to support operational teams to develop business continuity plans. Working with a range of experts to tell the story in an easily digestible way was really important when working at pace.
Tell us what your role involves – how do you work with the science and technology function in the Home Office and wider department?
My directorate, Home Office Science, has numerous functions. Its work spans the Home Office and operational partners: we maintain the DNA and fingerprint forensic databases; embed future thinking to help identify long-term issues and challenges; lead and coordinate regulatory policy on the use of animals in science and run the associated regulator; and support the Home Office’s science advisory committees, science related arm’s-length bodies and our chief scientific adviser in their various roles.
We also invest in research and development on important topics such as knife detection and imaging technology that facilitates goods crossing the border.
I understand that a key part of the One Home Office transformation programme has been to improve the department’s use of science, evidence and innovation – can you share what that means in practice and how you are aiming to do that?
The One Home Office transformation programme is really exciting. We are putting science, innovation and evidence at the heart of the department, supporting decision making and delivery for our people, partners and the public.
I have three priorities.
The first is supporting the continuous professional development of our scientists and engineers so that we keep pace with scientific developments. Science doesn’t sleep, after all.
The second is embedding a scientifically inquisitive and analytically curious culture across the Home Office. In addition to supporting colleagues to explore data and evidence, we need to build confidence to embrace scientific topics.
My third priority is to remove barriers to innovation. Every day I hear of great ideas that may help with some of the country’s hardest challenges and it is important to me that those great ideas are nurtured.
“Every day I hear of great ideas that may help with some of the country’s hardest challenges and it is important to me that those ideas are nurtured”
How are you supporting science professionals within the Home Office – what are your aims for them as a community?
Community is key. Since taking up my position, I’ve been impressed with the breadth and depth of scientific expertise across the department. We are establishing scientific community forums to promote knowledge sharing and providing the opportunity for people to assist others by bringing their own expertise, experience and insight to different problems. This will also help our scientists and technologists keep in touch with both the policy and operational context, as well as research and development advances. I’m a huge fan of experiencing “the frontline” in whatever form that takes and recently spent a day with a police force to see a day-in-the-life of two police officers. You learn a lot about your own role in the civil service when you see others in the systems you support go about their work, and I am keen that our scientists seize similar opportunities.
What are you doing to support wider science literacy in the department?
Nurturing a scientifically inquisitive and analytically curious culture across the Home Office is a goal worth the investment. There are policy, operational and programme teams that have excellent knowledge and awareness of relevant scientific disciplines.
We’re delivering a series of science-based presentations to introduce other teams to the wide range of scientific topics that the Home Office is interested in. We’re also arranging demonstrations of several of our research and development projects, so that colleagues can see what we are investing in and explore the science behind those developments.
I am keen to maximise the awareness of great toolkits that have been developed by the Government Office for Science and analytical professions.
The Home Office is one of government’s largest departments, both in scope and size. As a team charged with providing central support, how do you ensure you’re keeping well connected with and briefed on the huge range of policy areas and teams?
Through our work, we have developed an extensive network across all areas of the Home Office and beyond. This helps maintain our understanding of emerging challenges and develop awareness of how science can help. Knowledge sharing is really important and we deliver a wide range of seminars and “teach-in” sessions to promote awareness.
My central science and technology research and development commissioning team is a great example of my team’s strong engagement across the business. We work across the Home Office’s missions and capabilities to identify opportunities where science and technology could address current and future challenges. We then commission a portfolio of research, development and innovation which stretches across the department’s broad scope. This constant interaction between ourselves and stakeholders ensures we are well briefed on the huge range of policy areas and deliver impactful science and technology solutions.
And how do you ensure you are also connecting with industry and academia, and feeding their insights back into the department?
We are supported by the Home Office Science Advisory Council, who provide our chief scientific adviser with independent advice. We have a number of committees that have world-leading academics and external experts spanning topics such as: the misuse of drugs; age estimation; animals in science; and biometrics and forensic ethics.
When it comes to science and technology innovation, we work with organisations like the Accelerated Capability Environment, which has a diverse community of academic institutions and industry bodies who can explore creative solutions to challenging problems, often deploying a wide range of digitally-enabled technologies and thinking. We also work with the Joint Security and Resilience Centre, which has delivered trials of technology in the world of biometrics capture to support major Home Office programmes. Additionally, we collaborate with the Defence and Security Accelerator, a cross-government team based in the MoD who work to find and fund the best ideas from industry and academia to help keep the UK safe (see interview p.14).
Last year, I attended my first Security & Policing Conference – a major annual event hosted by JSaRC. This was a world-class opportunity to come together with UK suppliers and senior decision makers across the law enforcement and security sectors to discuss the latest advances in delivering national security and resilience. I’m really looking forward to the next event in 2023.
What advice would you offer colleagues across government about working most effectively with their S&T colleagues?
Science and technology are essential as we work to overcome complex challenges, innovate to realise better outcomes, and make the most of future opportunities. Each government department has a different setup, but I encourage you to start a conversation with your science and technology colleagues about your work area and how they might be able to assist. Do reach out to your department’s chief scientific adviser if you need signposting to the best team.
I’ve found it works best if you come to us early with a problem to see how we can help. That way your department’s scientists and engineers can consider who might be helpful across the scientific, analytical and data community, as well as what options exist to tap into technological research and development and other sources of innovation.
Dr Dewhurst is director of science and technology delivery and strategy at the Home Office
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