Dr Jessica Ash is a postdoctoral fellow in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Oxford. In mid-November Jessica spent a week in Westminster as part of the Royal Society’s pairing scheme. Here she shares her experience of shadowing George Freeman MP and what she learnt about how scientists can get involved in policy-making.

parliament-may-2015How do policymakers incorporate scientific evidence, and the nebulous cloud of uncertainty surrounding it, into meaningful policy? This was the question I set out to answer during my week in Parliament as part of the Royal Society’s annual pairing scheme. I, along with 31 other scientists, were recipients of the 2015 encounter that took place in Westminster between 23 and 26 November. As part of the scheme policymakers and scientists swap roles to understand the science underlying policy and the policy that enacts science.

I shadowed Life Sciences Minister George Freeman MP and took part in multiple sessions delving into the processes, offices, and people that are at the intersection of science and policy. For all of you skeptics, you can rest assured that science does indeed play a central role in policy formation and decision-making. Most importantly, however, is how this information is conveyed. As scientists, our task is to ensure that our work is truthfully represented in policy. I have distilled the essentials of my experience into three key points for how to get your voice – and the voice of science – heard in Parliament:

  1. “Everything should be made as simple as possible…”, as Einstein’s famous quote starts, but in politics he should have concluded “and then simpler still.” Although the perpetuity of the research cycle can be simultaneously enlightening and overwhelming, this pace pales in comparison to the life of an MP who must have a broad-sweeping understanding of the key players, issues, evidence, perceptions, press-releases, costs, budgets, long-term and short-term strategies, unintended consequences, and global events at all times.  Being cognizant of this enormous task is a crucial first step before entering a politician’s office. This means you need to sculpt all of those painstaking years of experiments and evidence into a few simple yet punchy headlines that can be communicated in a few minutes.  So how do you do this?
  1. Speaking their language. Policymakers must take into account a broad range of views for making decisions in government.  Science is only one part of this equation.  The better you are in portraying your ideas from various lenses, the more effective you will be in your communication.  First, you need to convey the scope of the problem and attach a financial value to the future outcome if the problem is or is not addressed (for e.g. the trend for an aging population demographic and the socioeconomic burden we face with dementia if no treatments are discovered in the next five years).  Second, what would a successful policy look like that addresses this problem? How would the policy be implemented? What would be the deliverables of the policy across various time scales? Defining success as tangible outcomes makes the concept easier to grasp. Third, what are the personal and political values associated with the policy? Is the policy aligned with the parties’ manifesto? How would the public perceive the policy? Thinking about how different groups of people would perceive the proposed changes and the strategies for moving forward in the face of opposition is helpful.  However, there are likely to be others raising competing claims using different scientific evidence.  How then can evidence-based decisions proceed in the face of uncertainty?
  1. Managing risk in decision-making. Although there is no specific code to describe levels of uncertainty, confidence intervals will likely fall on uncomprehending ears. Instead, it may be helpful to outline a list of actions and the possible consequences of those actions, assigning an intuitive probability (such as likely vs unlikely) to each option and advocating why your decision would produce the greatest expected benefit.  Ultimately this information will be conveyed to the public, and as we have learned with climate change, invoking fear with horrendous “what if” situations can actually thwart rather than propagate change.  It may be useful to incorporate some of these “lessons learned” to find the best ways to inform and motivate policymakers and the public towards action despite the unknowns.

Overall, the pairing scheme is a great experience to begin a dialogue with parliamentarians, which I believe can drive a new frontier of policy-making. The principles outlined above highlight a starting point in this process. Using a collaborative approach, we can begin to shift away from the politicization of science to building an honest and transparent portrayal about the results and responsibilities for effective action.

  • agbtm

    Thank you for taking on such an important role in this pairing scheme. Your blog is very general and even generic, so didn’t you have any particularly interesting experiences to talk about? I think we’d like to hear about what you found interestingly different from your own expectations, perhaps shocking or even upsetting, or politically stupid or some such. Such details would make your blog a lot more interesting – after all it is YOUR experience we’d like to read about.