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A scientific tax man

It may not win him many admirers at parties, but for Paul Barton, helping companies claim tax credits for their research is a great way of combining his diverse interests in science and policy.

Paul Barton
Credit: Jumpstart

"So what do you do then?" "I'm a tax consultant." "Oh."

Early on in my current job, I learnt that this is how the conversation goes at parties whenever I try to simplify my job description. I don't make that mistake anymore, mainly because describing myself as a "tax consultant" is not wholly true. What I really do is to help scientists get money from the government (and that's people like you and me, really) so they can afford to do more science. And in order to do that, I first need to discuss all their fascinating innovations with them, so that I understand exactly what they are doing. So why did I only tell people I was a tax consultant?

They say money makes the world go round, and as physicists, we know it's true. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are not the cheapest marvels of the modern world. The stipend and family support that let me stay in a pleasant (if basic) shared house in Brighton during my DPhil at the University of Sussex came from someplace other than my own pocket. And while it's true that a scientific innovation may eventually make you money, you almost always need money before you can innovate.

Fortunately for scientists, governments in many countries (including the UK) are keen on innovation. They see it as a prime driver of economic growth, and to encourage it, sensible chancellors and finance ministers across the globe have set up schemes whereby companies can claim tax relief for carrying out research and development. Quite rightly, the regulations concerning this tax relief require companies to demonstrate that they are indeed carrying out research, so the first step in claiming this tax relief is for a company to examine its technology and scientific development to see if it fits the bill. And that's where I, as a science and technology tax consultant at the specialist firm Jumpstart, come in.

Research and rewards 
A typical day at Jumpstart might begin with sifting through public information about a company's technology, using sources such as the company's website and national or international patent registries. As a team, we apply ourselves to all sorts of science. This ranges from fundamental research (the sort of thing that government money might have funded if it were being done in academia rather than industry) to solidly commercial stuff like finding ways to make biscuits 20% faster (and therefore cheaper) or working out how to get all that data from your shopping app to the hundreds of companies wanting to sell you what you want.

Since I'm a physicist, I tend to concentrate on device and instrument manufacture (particularly electronics), software and innovations that involve applied maths or physics. (And no, that doesn't include all of engineering or so my colleagues tell me.) Variety is a great thing in working life and we certainly get that at Jumpstart.

In the afternoon, we might leave the office to travel to a client's premises, get a tour of the factory or a demonstration of the software. We'll talk to chief technical officers, the finance director and managing director and other senior individuals, so being able to interact with people well is important. Then we'll get into the nitty gritty, asking the client questions about what went wrong in their development process and how they fixed it. Society often encourages us to talk about our successes, whether that's how great our scientific data are or how wonderful we are as a candidate at interview, but in the process, we sometimes forget about the things we learned and discovered when things didn't go according to plan. Often, these are the things that make up good research and lead to progress and innovation.

The next day, when we are back in the office, we'll get started on the desk side of the job, preparing a technical narrative on behalf of our client and getting the costs prepared. At this point, an expert knowledge of the relevant tax regulations is essential. I've learnt a lot about this at Jumpstart, and I find the intricacies and fuzziness of legislation fascinating, like a puzzle to be solved, one that keeps producing interesting problems as you interpret the regulations for each client's different research. The numeracy and systemic thinking I developed in my physics training are useful here. We also work closely with our clients' accountants, who perform the final task of submitting corporation tax returns to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Once that happens, the client sees the benefit of our service in terms of reduced tax or a refund, and we have earned our fee.

A full claim usually takes at least one month to complete, and sometimes as long as six. During this period, we're always on hand to help by taking instructions and making sure our clients meet the relevant tax deadlines. The fast turnaround time of the business world is something I personally prefer, as you get to see a reward for your work quickly. In academic science, rewards are slower. This is why it's important to have both commercial and publicly funded science; a business would never have funded the LHC, for example.

Different cultures 
Many of my colleagues in Jumpstart's technical analysis team have joined the company directly from academic or industrial science roles, but my route was different. After a series of postdoctoral positions in atomic physics, I decided to retrain in economics and social-science research. This allowed me to delve into the public-policy arena, and I worked on promoting equality in public services such as the UK's National Health Service a role that helped me build skills such as persuading people through presentations and discussions. Then, after about eight years of working in policy, I was introduced to the "innovation consultancy" field thanks to a friend who opened my eyes to the possibility of combining my interests in science, policy and consulting, while also tapping into the numeracy I'd gained as a physicist.

Overall, I've found that experiencing different management cultures has been very helpful for me, and employers have seen it as evidence of perseverance and "goal-centred action" both sought-after qualities. However, corporate recruiting managers do sometimes ask applicants who have spent significant amounts of time in academia or the public sector why they haven't joined the corporate world before, and they may question how the individual will fit into a corporate environment. So if you are interested in making a career change of this nature, you should be prepared for such questions and have good ideas about how to answer them.

Using science in a consulting role has been and continues to be rewarding. The variety of businesses, science and people is fantastic and it keeps a curious mind interested. While there are some large organizations out there looking for people to fill similar roles, I recommend working for a smaller company with ambition where the opportunities to contribute are broad. Working in a team of 20 scientists, as I do, also means there is no end of interesting discussions (work-related and otherwise). As technology moves on and the market and policy evolve, I'm looking forward to plenty more challenges so if I meet you at a party next year and you ask what I do, I'll be sure not to just reply "I'm a tax consultant."

Paul Barton is a technical analyst at Jumpstart in Edinburgh, UK. email paul.barton@jumpstartuk.co.uk