I’ve been interning in the Science Policy Centre for over a month now and the natural division of policy for science and science for policy is evident, a point that has been exemplified during the Week in Westminster programme, organised as part of the Royal Society’s pairing scheme.
The pairing scheme offers researchers the opportunity to understand how the civil service and government thinks, to talk about research and to build a bridge of contacts to help engage in policy, among other things. Conversely for policymakers including civil servants, MPs and (for the first time) a Lord, a dovetailing of specific interests, an increase in understanding about research and about evidence gathering are positive outcomes. Alongside these statesmen and interested academics, the four other Science Policy interns and I were there, as the chance to develop our understanding of the vital and varied role that science plays couldn’t be passed up.
Importantly, Westminster relies on academics to contribute to the discussion of policy, as well as professional policy experts, in whichever space they may be taking place. Most Government departments have a Chief Scientific Adviser, and every MP or Lord has access to the revered House libraries. Along with books, these provide a research service with impressive turnaround times. Dr Sarah Barber, formerly a medical doctor and now at the Commons Library, spoke to the scientific researchers about the varied nature of the work – imagine writing a review article on a topic outside of your specialism in as little at 30 minutes, “difficult” just doesn’t cover it. They also track bills going through parliament and provide information on these.
With all of this advice available within and outside of Westminster, the speakers couldn’t stress enough that policy doesn’t flow directly from evidence, at least not often! The multifaceted beast of politics has a role to play, even with the Government’s more blue-sky approaches to future policy termed horizon-scanning. Political, financial and ethical acceptability all have a part to play, but scientists can champion what the evidence says, or highlight when it is lacking.
A relative dearth of science backgrounds among the general populace in both the civil service and parliament is something that doesn’t seem to be going away, with about 10% of MPs over the last three Parliaments having a science background, but at least it doesn’t seem to be getting worse…yet. In the Cabinet, only Vince Cable (doctor of Economics) has been educated at degree-level in STEM, making the presence of departmentally-embedded science advisers important for evidence based policy.
Someone who is no stranger to the Royal Society is Prof David MacKay FRS, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Energy and Climate Change. As part of his work, he has championed the use of open working in his department over the last four years and, despite some wrangling with the political process, has produced some interesting and useful tools. The 2050 calculator looks at the energy mix powering the UK in 40 years time, and how the often contradictory departmental objectives will play out, when the huge number of options available are put into play. This has been used to develop the Government’s Carbon Plan, and is being adapted internationally. In an interview with Jill Rutter from the Institute for Government, Professor Ian Boyd, CSA at DEFRA is clear about his role “…to advise about the potential consequence of different policies based upon the evidence, not to say whether one policy or other is right or wrong”.
The participants in the pairing scheme have the rest of the week with their Westminster partner, as well as a reciprocal visit to their institution in the New Year. Some are old hats at this, having taken part for one or two years before, and everyone seems to be thinking not only about the policy for science but increasingly more about science for policy, which can only be a good thing.