Q&A: Sharing your research with parliamentarians
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Medical Research, which the MRC supports, brought parliamentarians and scientists together for an event in Parliament House on June 16. MRC-funded researcher Professor Ian McKeith, Professor of Old Age and Psychiatry at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Health, showcased his work at the event.
Jane Bunce spoke to him about his experience of sharing his work developing the world’s first accurate diagnostic test for dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), the second most common type of dementia. His research is featured in a booklet produced for the event.
Why is it important to speak to parliamentarians?
It’s important to demonstrate to the people who are responsible for funding research that it makes a difference ― that it does actually have an effect on people’s lives and healthcare. It’s also to help them put a human face to the idea of medical research, as they may not have had much contact with scientists and it helps them understand what we do.
Parliamentarians are incredibly engaged with dementia at the moment, particularly due to the Prime Minister’s Challenge, so it’s an important time for the dementia research community to be making sure parliamentarians have the right information and giving feedback. We’ve been promised a doubling in research funding [Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he wants UK Government investment in dementia research to double from £66m in 2015 to £122m in 2025] so now we need to consolidate that, and make sure it goes to the right places.
What do you emphasise when you are speaking to parliamentarians about your work?
I think that it’s important to speak honestly and realistically to parliamentarians, so that you give them some measure of how their policy plans and expectations are matched by what’s achievable. Most parliamentarians would be aware of the Dementia Challenge and that dementia is a priority. So when I’m talking to them, I want to tell them where we’re up to in our research, talk about our successes and what could be achieved in the next period of time.
But it’s getting the balance right between being optimistic, positive and upbeat so they support the research, whilst also managing expectations so they understand the timeframe and the level of resources we would need. That’s particularly an issue for dementia ― we’re trying to cure it by 2025, and that’s not a long way off. It’s the same message I’d give more generally when speaking to the public ― managing the public’s expectation about what’s achievable is really important for people like us to do.
Are their benefits to scientists from engaging with policy makers?
I think it’s very important for scientists to get out and speak to other communities, and recognise the context in which they are doing the science. It’s important to hear people like (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health) Earl Howe and (Universities and Science Minister) David Willetts explaining the greater breadth of things. I found it really helpful at this event ― it’s motivating. It’s motivating to go into the wider world and see other people have got an interest in your research, and to see the investment in research having impact.
The more opportunities there are, and the more people exposed to those kinds of activities and interaction, the better. Otherwise impact reporting can seem burdensome and hard to do ― but if you see that other people are appreciative and supportive, you can see that it has a purpose.For me, this event was a very good experience.
The APPG on Medical Researchwas established in 2005 to provide a forum and network for parliamentarians with an interest in medical research and the medical research sector. Chaired by Lord Turnberg, it is supported by the MRC, the Academy of Medical Sciences, Arthritis Research UK, Cancer Research UK, Wellcome Trust and Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), which runs the group’s secretariat.The APPG provides a forum for parliamentarians to meet and discuss topical issues in medical research with experts, and work to raise awareness of these matters across Parliament.