FROM TESS GARDNER IN THE SCIENCE POLICY CENTRE
2010 marks the tenth Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme. To date, more than 200 MPs-scientist pairs have taken part. However, 2010 is the first year to see a Fellow of the Royal Society taking part in the pairing scheme: Professor David Wark FRS of Imperial College London expressed his astonishment that no other Fellows had yet taken up this fantastic opportunity and compared the excitement he felt at taking part to the excitement of “a kid in a candy store”.
This year, 29 pairs took part in the scheme: 17 MP–scientist pairs and 12 civil servant–scientist pairs. Participants first met at the beginning of November, when the scientists came to London for a ‘Week in Westminster’. Although Parliamentarians have experienced stranger exchanges (Tower Block of Commons is the first example that springs to mind), it was a tense start – how well would they all get on? Would the researchers team together and sneer derisively at Westminster’s flimsy appreciation of science, each aggressively clenching a symbolic solitary test tube in their fist as a proxy for a middle finger? Would some pairs turn out to be a match made in hell? What if a leading researcher in embryonic stem cells were paired with a fervently pro-life MP? Or an ardently anti-nuclear MP paired with a leading researcher in fission chain reactions? What nightmarish rabble-rousing might result?
The reality was much less like a scene of post-match football hooliganism; most of the participants enjoyed the one-to-one interaction and conveyed genuine interest in what each other had to say. Many of the scientists had words of praise for their Partner, expressing their amazement at how many different issues and pressures they deal with on a daily basis. They were pleasantly surprised by some of their Partners’ scientific backgrounds and connections; Dr Rhiannon Stevens of the University of Cambridge was amused to find out her Partner, Julian Huppert MP, seemed to know more individuals in the research community than she did!
The ‘Week in Westminster’ was a chance for the scientists to break out of the laboratory bubble by going behind the scenes at the Houses of Parliament and learning about the role of science in Government and Parliament to see just how influential and applicable their work can be to the wider world. They talked to leading government figures including the Director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the Deputy Director of the Government Office for Science, Foresight Project Leaders, and an Adviser to the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee.
The scientists put this new knowledge into action at a mock Select Committee meeting, with the scientists on the committee and three policy experts as witnesses: Dr Brian Iddon, former MP for Bolton South East; Fiona Fox , Director of the Science Media Centre; and Dr Jack Stilgoe, Senior Policy Advisor here at the Royal Society Science Policy Centre.
The next day, the scientists compared their performances with that of a real Select Committee during their attendance at the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee session on scientific advice and evidence in emergencies with specific reference to volcanic ash. The session was overseen by Committee Specialist Xameerak Malik and chaired by Andrew Miller MP, 2010 participant and long-time member of the scheme. Following the session, our scientists had the opportunity to observe Prime Minister’s Questions and other live parliamentary debates.
Though the Week in Westminster is now over, exchanges between the pairs continue. These include visits to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the Office of Carbon Capture and the headquarters of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Institut Laue-Langevin, and CERN. The connections formed from these visits have been so strong that the scheme has been used as a case study exemplar for successful knowledge exchange between science and policy by the National Environment Research Council.
MPs and civil servants are keen to express their approval for the scheme, with two mentions in parliament (here from Gavin Barwell MP and here from Nicola Blackwood MP). Past participant Annette Brooke MP has also made a parliamentary mention of her enjoyable engagement with the scheme). Another past participant, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, even came to speak to this year’s participants about his experience of the scheme in 2009. His pairing Partner, Professor Yau Jim Yip, initiated a visit to Willis’ constituency office and invited the then MP on a visit to his research lab in the School of Engineering and Computing at the University of Huddersfield. The two of them are still in touch – a testament to the relationship of trust that had developed.
The scientists, too, were eager to commend the scheme. Dr Steve Liddle of the University of Nottingham praised the Royal Society for providing opportunities like the pairing scheme and for investing in science talent at all stages. Meanwhile, Dr Rebecca Bartlett of the University of Birmingham remarked, “I’ve been encouraged by how much you can get involved. The doors are open for us to submit evidence and get involved in the debate”.
If you are a MP, civil servant, or scientist considering applying for the scheme, heed the words of praise from 2010 participant Professor David Wark FRS: “I think the Prime Minister should make this [scheme] mandatory for everyone”. But to para-quote the Royal Society’s motto, Nullius In Verba, “take nobody’s word for it”; come and find out for yourself.
Applications for the 2011 scheme will open in Spring 2011. But for the moment you might want to check out the how the scheme works and more details of the activities of 2010 participants: Dr Rebecca Bartlett’s blog and Professor Chris Cooper’s blog.