Parliament from the inside
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 Angela Attwood, a research fellow at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, found that it’s the librarians, clerks and advisors who are the key contacts in Westminster. In a separate post, Dr Helen Chappell finds that Parliament is crying out for research findings.
In recent years, the UK government has been strongly advocating evidence-based policy making informed by cutting edge scientific research.
As a psychologist I can identify how my findings may inform policy, but identifying ways to get my findings to policy-makers is much more challenging. This was one of the main reasons why I chose to take part in the pairing scheme.
Every scientist who takes part in the scheme is paired with an MP or civil servant, and half of the week spent in Westminster allows time for shadowing. I was paired with liberal democrat MP Stephen Williams, who is also the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and a fellow (adopted) Bristolian.
We also have common interests in tobacco control (Mr Williams was a strong advocate of the 2005 public smoking ban) and so this was a perfect pairing. Despite his busy schedule, I was able to spend an interesting and insightful two days with Mr Williams and his team.
The scheme also includes two days of workshops and lectures by MPs, civil servants and scientific advisors. These sessions provided a comprehensive overview of Parliament and government, how they operate and interact, the role of science in policy-making and, crucially, how we, as scientists, can be part of the process.
These formal aspects of the scheme alone delivered everything I had hoped for (and much more besides). But there were a number of other aspects to the scheme that meant it was one of the best experiences of my career.
First, spending four days in and around the Palace of Westminster was exhilarating. I was born and raised in London and I remember seeing the palace for the first time when I was a small child. I was awe-struck by it then and still am today.
Then there was the chance to spend time with an eclectic mix of scientists; including geologists, neuroscientists and physicists from both academia and industry. Despite our diverse backgrounds there was remarkable similarity in our reasons for taking part and in the challenges we perceived in reaching policy-makers.
Of all the things I learned during my time in Westminster, two ‘take-home’ messages stand out. First, that parliamentary and government officials want to hear from us.
Evidence-based policy can only live up to its name if policy-makers and their support staff have access to the latest research findings. But for this to happen, scientists have to be proactive. We shouldn’t sit back and assume that our findings will be picked up.
Second, though my time with Stephen Williams helped me understand the policy-making process, it became clear that the important contacts for us scientists are the people who collate and synthesise the evidence for MPs: the parliamentary librarians, scientific advisors and civil servants in the scientific offices. Select committee clerks also can play an important role in helping to get topics onto select committee agendas.
My involvement with the scheme left me motivated to engage with policy-makers and a much better understanding of how I can build and consolidate these links.
The scheme ends with a reciprocal visit from our Parliamentary partner, so I am looking forward to welcoming Stephen Williams to our labs. It will be difficult to leave the same impact on him as my visit to Westminster left on me. But we’ll give it a go!
This post is one of two about the Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme. In a separate post, Dr Helen Chappell talks about her experience.