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Inside Westminster

Theresa Dahm

Theresa Dahm outside the Houses of Parliament (Image copyright: Theresa Dahm)

Theresa Dahm, a PhD student at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, recently spent three months as an intern with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. So just how different were the halls of Westminster from life in the lab?

This summer I traded my life as a PhD student in Cambridge for life as an intern with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. And what a trade it was! I may be used to criticising research papers, but scrutinising government was a whole new challenge.

The world of policy-making seemed at first to contrast sharply with the research environment I was so used to. I went from managing my own long research project, with its looming but fairly intangible deadline, to working closely with members of a tight-knit committee and meeting deadlines every week. I also left behind the comfort of being a specialist in my research area (how depression affects self-control) to work in an area I had little knowledge of: an inquiry into the regulation of medical implants. Armed with a licence to ask questions and the need to learn a lot and fast, I set to work.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee is made up of MPs. It examines the work of Government and holds it accountable for its science-related policies. As well as helping to investigate whether the regulation of medical implants is up to scratch, I also scoped a number of potential future inquiries for the committee.

I was lucky enough to shadow one of the committee MPs around Westminster and in his constituency for a couple of days. That was definitely an eye-opener; being an MP is not for the faint-hearted! They work long hours, and need an empathetic ear for constituents and a good knowledge of extremely diverse issues.

Of course, I also saw the fun side of Parliament; I climbed the 334 stairs of Big Ben and danced in Westminster Hall to the sound of the MP4s (a band of MPs). I went around the archives, admiring centuries-old scrolls and seeing the signatures of Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII first-hand.

As it turns out, working on the Science and Technology Committee isn’t so different from research after all. There are definite contrasts — drinks on the Terrace, unhindered access to Parliamentary debates — but ultimately both rely on thinking critically, asking the right questions, reviewing the evidence and writing about your results. The impact factor is just a little higher for committee reports than your average science publication, and the pace rather swifter.

Ultimately, I came away from Parliament knowing that politics is a lot more accessible than it can appear, and that everyone can (and should) get involved — especially scientists.

Theresa Dahm

Theresa’s internship was funded by the British Psychological Society.

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