James, 2019–20

Headshot of James Howard


What were you researching before you started as a Science Policy Fellow?

My research background is in synthetic organic chemistry. As long as I can remember I have been drawn to trying to understand how things are made, how things work and the interrelated series of processes that lead to an outcome. It was unsurprising then that I found myself passionately studying science with a particular fondness for synthetic organic chemistry – the field of chemistry that uses chemical reactions to build, or synthesise, carbon-based molecules. As a synthetic chemist I have enjoyed the freedom to investigate complex molecular systems while, at same time, invent new chemical tools to build brand new molecules fit for a range of applications such as drug discovery and organic electronics. My research has focused on method development of chemical reactions where I have invented oxidation reactions for potential drug candidates, harnessed the power of biology by using enzymes to create brand-new molecules and have developed innovative isotope labelling molecular tools for applications within nuclear reactors.

What policy area are you working on through the Science Policy Fellowship Program?

I am working in the Department of Finance, which may sound like a strange step away from my chemical research roots but has been exactly what I was seeking from the Science Policy Fellowship Program. I work as part of the Higher Education and Research Agency Advice Unit where my role is to provide policy and financial advice to Government on higher education and research related programs within the Education portfolio. Working in a central agency such as Finance is providing me with the broad perspective of how the government decision making process operates and what variables can influence this process which is what I was looking for on joining the program.

How has your research background helped you contribute to policy development?

A research background has set me up really well for entering this policy role. The skills that I learned and cultivated through my research training and subsequent career have been really useful to the policy area I work in. I have found that skills such as critical thinking, authentic problem solving, and communication of complex ideas and interrelated systems have been very useful for me and the policy group I work in. While I am in a different environment to my research background, I feel that I am well prepared for understanding and articulating policy problems and solutions and have been able work coherently within my team. To me policy development has many overlaps with research in that it requires significant understanding of the problem and the context, broad investigation into potential solutions, creative input to evaluate and build a solution in the right context, and the tools to test, realise, and test again, any solution put forward.

How has the program changed your career aspirations?

The Australian Science Policy Fellowship has allowed to me to steer my career in a direction I have been interested in for some time without sacrificing the time spent on my research training and career. For me, the program has allowed me to contribute to a policy area that I am passionate about while leveraging skills and knowledge I have gained from my research background. Ultimately the program has reinforced my aspirations of having the ability to influence positive social change without retraining and leaving my scientific career behind. I certainly feel that the program has delivered on its promise to provide a pathway for scientists from research, to the public sector and into areas where the research skills are not only valued but also encouraged.

What is your favourite part about working in a policy role in the Australian Public Service?

I came into the Science Policy Fellowship with the desire to observe and understand how the government decision making process worked, and to then be able to have a hand in policy development and influence decisions. I am really encouraged that as I immerse myself into this role, this desire is being realised. Time has flown by this year and I haven’t looked back or regretted the move once, which is something I find quite special. I’m finding that the support and care that people in my team have for each other and have for the policy areas we work in really stimulating. Witnessing a true collaborative process has been a positive eye opener for me and I am genuinely blown away by the level of critical thought and intelligence that goes into the decisions made around me on a daily basis. Also, it’s hard to go past a public service morning tea as one of my favourite parts of my role in the public service.