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Working in physics: Physics for a safer world

The Home Office Scientific Development Branch offers some of the most varied scientific jobs available. And, as Colin Wilson describes, it also combines a university-like atmosphere with all the benefits of working in the civil service.

Get your motor running

It is almost five years since I started working for the Home Office Scientific Development Branch. If you are anything like me (and the many other people I have met in my time here) your first question will probably be “The Home Office what?”. You might also wonder why the Home Office — which is the UK government department responsible for protecting the public from terrorism, crime and antisocial behaviour — needs science. Many people are surprised by the answers.

The Home Office Scientific Development Branch (HOSDB) is a group of about 200 scientists and engineers who offer advice and technical support to the Home Office on all aspects of its work. Its main customer is the police service but it also works for many other government departments, including immigration, prisons and transport. These services have an enormous impact on society and they are all making increasing use of technology to achieve their aims. As a result, they need advice from experts to ensure that they make the best (and safest) use of new technologies.

A project generally starts with a customer explaining what they want. For example, the police may need a vest that helps prevent stabbing injuries. The first step usually involves translating that requirement into technical terms, so one needs to find out about the customer’s requirements for weight, sensitivity or any of the other factors that you need to consider when designing a piece of kit. Once HOSDB employees have a detailed idea of what is needed, they then advise on available equipment that may be suitable. One of our largest tasks to date has been evaluating the safety implications of equipping the UK’s police forces with TASERs — non-lethal weapons that incapacitate victims by giving them an electric shock. In some cases, however, no commercially available equipment fits the requirements, so we look at the latest research to see if what we need is possible and, if necessary, develop the equipment ourselves.

It is difficult to describe an average project at HOSDB because of the enormous diversity of its work. There are, for example, ongoing programmes in drug detection, explosive detection, and radiological and nuclear threat detection, as well as in surveillance, physical security, biometrics and road safety. This sort of work is vital in the current political climate and working in an area that has such an impact in the real world comes with a big feel-good factor.

HOSDB mostly employs science graduates early in their career, and the exact nature of their degree is less relevant than their ability to apply scientific methods and to communicate their findings clearly. I arrived at HOSDB with a PhD in astrophysics from Durham University, which is not, on the face of it, enormously relevant for the work, but my skills have always been put to good use. Indeed, whether it be determining new ways to look for radiological weapons (so-called dirty bombs that are designed to spread radioactive material) or calculating how strong a piece of body armour needs to be, almost every project requires some knowledge of physics.

Reality check
My move from academia to the civil service was not exactly planned. When I reached the end of my PhD — which I really enjoyed — I decided that I wanted to work somewhere that was a bit more “real”. During a visit to the university careers service, the advisor found an advert for HOSDB in a magazine, which sounded interesting. I applied, got the job and then swiftly found myself moving to Hertfordshire, where HOSDB has its main site. Its other site is in Sussex, thus sparing Home Office scientists from having to work in London.

I started out in the surveillance section, where I was investigating how to improve surveillance equipment and methods by examining the underlying theory of the area — generating new ideas was also part of the remit. Working with engineers was a new experience — unlike physicists, I found that they tend to build first and plan later — but it turned out to be a really productive relationship. Indeed, collaborating with scientists from many disciplines is one of the best things about working at HOSDB. As well as physicists, it employs chemists, forensic scientists, electronic engineers and others, which means that you get to see the world from a variety of viewpoints.

After a couple of years in surveillance, I moved to a temporary job in the communications department (mostly because I am a relatively chatty scientist). Moving from core physics to science communication was a bit of a shock. I found myself writing press releases and answering the public’s questions (which were mostly about speed cameras!). It was a great job and a superb opportunity to hone my writing skills, but — as I was only covering the role until someone was employed full time — my career as a science writer was brief.

People power
My current role is in operations management, which is a job that is much more about people than science. Not everyone who works at HOSDB chooses to move in this direction but it sounded like an exciting challenge. Day to day I look after several teams, including an engineering design and manufacturing group and a team that provides security for major events in the UK (you would be amazed how much work goes into a political party conference or foreign visit). My job is to make sure everyone is doing the right work and that they have the support that they need. Although I don’t do much physics anymore, I have to understand the technical issues that arise within these teams, which is why all the managers at HOSDB have a science background.

I find management very enjoyable, and I have been surprised by the similarities to doing theoretical physics. As with analysing data and coming up with new theories, managing people and designing work flows involves spotting patterns and making connections that are not immediately obvious. I may not be looking for black holes anymore but I am still analysing a very complex system, which means that in many ways I feel that I am using the skills from my PhD more than ever.

HOSDB is definitely a unique place to work. In many ways it feels somewhat like a university department — the social life certainly resembles one — but we work at the forefront of issues that affect the whole country. People here are interested not only in science, but also in how the country works. In the end, our work is about making the world a better place.

About the author
Colin Wilson is the operations manager for the Home Office Scientific Development Branch’s National Technical Support Unit in Hertfordshire, UK.

This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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