Scientists: your Parliament needs you!
Every year scientists and policymakers pair up and shadow each other as part of the Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme. Two MRC researchers have recently completed a ‘Week in Westminster’. Here Dr Helen Chappell, a researcher at MRC Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge, tells us how she found a policy-making system on the lookout for scientific expertise. Her counterpart Dr Angela Attwood writes in a separate post.
In January a new exhibition will open at the Science Museum London. Churchill’s Scientists is dedicated to one of the most famous British Prime Ministers of the twentieth century and his fascination with science and technological advancement.
Having just returned from an absorbing ‘Week in Westminster’ as part of the Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme, the exhibition is a useful reminder that science and Government are no strangers to each other. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.
The Royal Society has been running the scheme for the last decade to strengthen links between politicians, senior civil servants and scientists. In particular the scheme gives scientists a greater insight into how politics work, how policy makes use of science and, critically, how scientists can get their voice heard along the corridors of power.
The week started with a tour of the Palace of Westminster. Let’s be clear, this is no ordinary office! It is very easy to be distracted by the magnificent paintings in the Royal Gallery or by one of the original manuscript journals of the House of Commons casually lying open at an entry from 5 November 1605 recording the discovery of ‘36 barrels of gunpowder’.
However, as we walked through these sumptuous rooms we started to see familiar faces; Lord Lawson, Baroness Boothroyd, Lord Sugar, and the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow MP (in full regalia as he and the Serjeant-at-Arms processed to the Commons Chamber). That was when we were reminded of the business in hand: policy-making.
And it was European policy on food safety standards that I encountered during a pairing day at the Foods Standards Agency, shadowing Paul Tossell, Head of the Radiation and Residues Team. With Paul I attended a meeting on permitted levels of various toxic substances in a wide range of foods, some of which I’d never even heard of! Asked if I felt reassured by these meticulous discussions I replied that I didn’t feel reassured at all – I had no idea there were so many things in my food that could potentially put me in hospital!
During the rest of the week we met scientists and policy-makers working right across Government and Parliament including the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and members of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
We watched Question Time in the Commons and the Lords, attended select committee hearings, and spent time with MPs and civil servants who wanted to show us what they do and how they work.
We even looked on as one of our number from the pairing scheme, forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, acted as expert witness for the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, giving evidence on the uses and abuses of biometric data such as fingerprints, DNA and iris-recognition.
And what did we learn? We learnt that, we, the scientists, need to be more vocal. We should be writing letters and submitting material to select committee calls for evidence. If we have research results that we think are important for policy, we should be letting Parliament know about them and we should be encouraging our PhD students to take up parliamentary internships. Politicians want our views and expert knowledge. After all, it makes their job easier!
The message I received loud and clear from this extraordinary week, from every civil servant, every peer and every MP, was this: scientists, your Parliament needs you!
Dr Helen Chappell
This post is one of two about the Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme. In a separate post, Dr Angela Attwood discusses her experience.