Interview: Taking perspective

Ryan Hum’s scientific training has proven valuable to his career in government and policy.

In November 2012 Ryan Hum was the first author on an eLife paper that reported a new mathematical relationship between income and global life expectancy. At the time Hum was taking a break from his policy career, to which he has since returned. Today he works for the Canadian government in the department that is responsible for immigration, refugee and citizenship.

How did you become interested in policy work?

I studied biochemistry and engineering as an undergraduate, and at the time – it was around 2002 – your career options were to go into the oil sands or to go into pharma. Neither appealed to me at all. I hate admitting this but I was involved in student government during my undergraduate degree and that gave me different perspectives and introduced me to policy. So when I graduated that’s the field I was looking into.

How did you get your first policy role?

I met my first boss at a biotech conference, and we struck up a conversation about GM food labelling. He was surprised by my perspectives – that I didn’t default to a purely scientific risk-based approach to my position – and ultimately offered me a job. That first job was doing biotech policy, helping to create regulations and guidelines on GM foods, animal biotech and cloning, so having a science background totally helped. And adding a layer of other perspectives – such as socioeconomic and legal perspectives – was super interesting.

Why did you take a break from your policy career?

It was kind of by accident. My partner and I were living in Ottawa and he got a job in Toronto. Back in the day when I had forced him to move to Ottawa I had always said, “you know, if you want to leave then I’ll follow you”, and one day he did. So it was basically an opportunity for me to explore other things. At that time I was already starting to be identified for executive positions. I actually thought I was too young for them (I was in my late twenties), so I wanted to take a pause on my career. The other aspect was that I’d moved so far away from science and engineering and I wanted to revisit my past.

How did you end up doing a PhD on the dynamics of global change?

I happened to meet up with Dr. Yu-Ling Cheng [the senior author for the eLife paper], a professor at the University of Toronto who was looking at the concept of global engineering. She said, “I’m exploring how engineers can contribute to global challenges, and it seems like you are interested in this as well – come study with me and we’ll figure out where you land”. So she actually gave me a very blank slate for a PhD. The paper in eLife was my first paper, and it set up the entire framework for how I wanted to look at global mortality and set up the rest of my experiments afterward.

Do you remember what you were doing when the paper was published?

I don’t, but I remember the feeling of getting conditionally accepted. And more than that, I actually remember writing my comments back to the reviewers. Their comments were clear and helpful, and I loved that my response back to them was published with the article.

How did you end up back in the world of government and policy again?

So in the same way that I started my PhD, my partner wanted to leave Toronto. We were returning to Ottawa and it was natural to go back into government. The dynamics of policy development were changing during that period. The book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein had come out and that was hitting really big in policy circles, and the use of data analytics and human-centred design were becoming more and more apparent. Based on my background, I thought I had those skills, so I started reaching out to different people in my networks. A former boss of mine is now a deputy minister and was starting up a central innovation hub for the Government of Canada. They wanted experts in behavioural economics, design thinking and data analytics, and I was one of their first hires, as Chief Designer and Data Scientist. It was a really fantastic and exciting time. There are very few times a government creates brand new offices – most of the time they’re renamed, merged or restructured offices. But the innovation hub didn’t exist before, so we had a blank canvas to work with. I helped to secure the funding and to determine how we were going to approach problems, how we were going to help departments, what types of problems we were going to tackle, and how we were going to do our work.

Did you find that many of your skills from your PhD came in to that?

Yeah, it was really fantastic. My PhD was data-heavy and very quantitative and I think it really helped with experimental design. I don’t think I’d ever talked about randomised control trials, random effects modelling, neural networks or regression trees in my previous policy life. That completely changed with the PhD. But more than confidence with data and data analytics, the PhD built my confidence in reaching out to experts and not being afraid to talk to these “supreme beings” that are the gurus in some of these fields.

What are your main responsibilities in your current role at Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC)?

The biggest thing right now is the thought leadership and creating what is basically a start-up within the government. We’re looking at service improvements specifically from the people perspective. When developing policies, programs or services, it’s important to think about operational efficiencies, risk, integrity and stewardship, but we [governments around the world] often forget about taking a client/human-centred approach. By this, I mean our team recognizes that people’s actions are not always rational and by examining their real-world experience we can get incredible insights for new service innovations. The times that people interact with IRCC are life changing moments in their life (sponsoring your family to come to Canada, applying for a student visa, citizenship, asylum, etc.), so how do we recognize the anxieties and excitement during these periods to deliver positive experiences?

What kinds of people do you have working on these problems?

I’ve hired anthropologists, social workers, an engineer, a data scientist, and I’m looking for a behavioural scientist right now, in addition to more traditional policy analysts. I’ve also hired videographers and graphic designers to help people tell their stories. It’s a pretty dynamic and interdisciplinary unit.

So it’s a bit like your PhD in a way, with lots of different components.

That’s exactly it. The PhD that I did was so interdisciplinary that I had to learn different languages: how to speak economics, how to speak demography, how to speak epidemiology. Each of these have their own terms, sometimes for the same concept. I think the biggest struggle that I’m going to have in the next year is to translate and create a cultural vibe and language for the team so that they can work together in a cohesive unit.

What career advice would you give to PhD students in the sciences who would like to work in policy or government?

I’d say… be confident that you can make a contribution. Things are slowly changing but around the world, policy development is practiced primarily by economists, statisticians and people who have their masters or PhD in public administration and political science. The hiring committees usually like hiring their own: they might think, “oh I’m an economist, I can see what an economist would add to this”. So you might get a lot of rejections, but be confident that you offer a perspective, that you have great training and that it is valued.

Ryan Hum CV

  • 2017 – present: Director, Services Insights and Experimentation Lab, Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada
  • 2014 – 2017: Chief Designer and Data Scientist, Central Innovation Hub, Privy Council Office, Canada
  • 2011 – present: Adjunct Professor, Special Lecturer and Course Instructor, various universities in Ontario, Canada
  • 2010 – present: PhD candidate, University of Toronto
  • 2009 – 2010: Acting Director, Sustainable Mining and Materials Policy Division, Natural Resources Canada
  • 2008 – 2010: Masters of Engineering Design, McMaster University, Canada
  • 2008: Senior Advisor to the Assistant Deputy Minister, Minerals and Metals Sector, Natural Resources Canada
  • 2007 – 2008: Deputy Director, Sustainable Mining and Materials Policy Division, Natural Resources Canada
  • 2005 – 2007: Senior Policy Analyst, and Manager, Horizontal Policy, Policy, Planning and International Affairs Directorate, Health Canada
  • 2006 – 2007: Bachelor of Applied Science in Chemical Engineering, Queen’s University, Canada
  • 2002 – 2005: Science Policy Analyst and Biotechnology Biologist, Office of Biotechnology, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada
  • 1997 – 2002: Bachelor of Science in Biology, Queen’s University, Canada