This weekend I was back at my old university for an alumni weekend showcasing some of the current research into biological sciences that they are progressing, much of which was fascinating; it also reminded me of a lot of things I had forgotten, and brought back that feeling you get when you are in a place that you understand completely and feel as though you could slip back into routine again – albeit with a lot better facilities than I recall having to manage with, at least in the teaching labs. Of course not everything was the same or indeed an improvement… I am not sure the slightly soulless looking restaurant area is an improvement on the comfy chairs and coffee serving hatch of over twenty years ago, and while I entirely understand the change, the lack of any kind of library – its place taken by ranks of computers of course – did make me feel just a tiny bit sad.
I might go into more detail on what I learned on the day, but actually it was something more personal that struck me afterwards. I am sure I have written about it before, but once again I found myself in a bit of difficulty explaining what I do for a living in any kind of clarity and without seeing someone’s eyes glaze over and realising that in my zeal to make them understand I had gone just a little too far.
A few years ago the Lovely Wife and I went to a Lee Hurst gig and foolishly managed to be in the front row (a fatal mistake at most stand-up comedy gigs). Needless to say, at one point Hurst made the error of asking me what I did for a living. So off I started and with a few minutes he motioned me to stop and insisted that considering my explanation was so convoluted and opaque I must actually be a Secret Agent (the waffle obviously being my cover story). It got a laugh, I guess I have a stock answer to the question when someone asks me if I think it is just better to duck the question.
However, surrounded by scientists at the weekend the question came up several times and in that kind of context I felt I had to give it a go.
So what do I do?
Professionally it would normally be referred to as Regulatory or Regulatory Affairs. It is a technical function usually, and at the basic level involves ensuring that products meet the regulations laid down for the countries where that product is going to be sold. Those regulations may be down to what the product can and cannot contain, what the labels might have to have on them and/or some forms of administrative procedures that need to happen before or after putting a product on the market (such as notification/registration with a government body).
Most people do not realise (why should they?) that a lot of products they use are actually quite highly regulated. Mostly the reason for this is for. The other reason is to drive consistency and allow free movement of goods.
The most regulated categories would include medicines and medical devices, but in Europe at least foods, cosmetics and biocides also have specific so-called ‘sector’ legislation, and that is what I have to deal with. My particular area is cosmetics, and I am a close personal friend of the EU Cosmetics Regulation.
If you are not in the sector the word cosmetic is generally tied to lipstick and eyeliner and similar products. Actually it is much wider than that, with shampoos, skin creams, deodorants, toothpaste and sunscreen products all falling under the definition and regulated as cosmetics (pretty much everything in your bathroom).
But trying to explain all this inevitably starts to take yourself into some kind of lecture mode and you can see the attention start to slip away rapidly even before getting into the joy of International regulations, Trade Associations, Scientific Committees and all the, um, fun stuff beyond the dry bones of the actual Regulations.
So maybe I’ll just stick to the Secret Agent story.