Dr Simon Willcock is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Southampton. Last November, Simon spent a week in Westminster as part of the Royal Society’s pairing scheme. As we get set to open applications for this year’s scheme, Simon shares his experience of the week and what he learnt.
Although we have already entered 2016, it is well worth reflecting on my experiences as part of the Royal Society pairing scheme towards the end of 2015. #SpoilerAlert: the scheme was (as always) a huge success. Twitter was buzzing with messages from scientists, civil servants and Members of Parliament, all excited about what each was learning from the other. This press release shows how enthusiastic my university was about it! As usual, I was glued to my phone and managed to rattle off a solid half century of tweets over the course of the week. If you haven’t already looked at the scheme’s hashtag (#ScienceInWestminster15), I would encourage you to do so – the tweets have even been ‘storified’ here, which gives you a great overview if you are pushed for time (and who isn’t?!).
A quick look at the agenda, gives you a good idea about many of the things we all learnt during the week, so I am going to focus on the time spent with my pair Prof Tim Wheeler (Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Department for International Development [DFID]). Pairing with Tim was great; despite being tremendously busy (his day is scheduled from 8am to 8pm, as with most people in Westminster, and meetings are considered ‘long’ if they take over 30 min!) he took a lot of time explaining the ins and outs of the department to me. For me, the whole process was eye-opening. DFID part-fund two of the projects that I work on (ASSETS and WISER) via the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme, and gaining an understanding of their aims, objectives and pressures was invaluable.
As Sir Mark Walport (UK government Chief Scientific Advisor) explained to us towards the end of the week, ‘the job of a scientific advisor is not to know everything, but to find it out and communicate it to ministers’. The difficulties associated with this were immediately evident. For example, whilst I was at DFID the Autumn Statement set out the budget for government departments for the foreseeable future. The civil servants were juggling their regular day-to-day activities with trying to influence the statement (in some cases up until the very last minute!) as well as pre-empt the impact of its outcomes, all whilst liaising with the International Development Minister Grant Shapps. The numbers being discussed in the Autumn Statement were simply astronomical and have far-reaching effects. As scientists, we have become used to the chaos associated with moving from grant to grant to fund our research; now imagine that grant is worth hundreds of millions and was used to support a substantial proportion of your day-to-day workforce! I am certain that the people I met at DFID spent much of December sifting through the Autumn Statement to balance the books – what a delightful Christmas that must have been!
Against all odds, the staff at DFID do a great job, managing numerous successful projects and getting significant buy-in from ministers. For example, in a meeting which I was lucky enough to attend, I got to see first-hand how excited and passionate Grant Shapps was about some of the projects DFID has managed. However, within days I got to see yet another obstacle that has to be overcome in order to form evidence-based policy; Grant Shapps resigned as Minister of State meaning all the traction the scientists at DFID had gained with him must be re-gained with his replacement – such is the nature of politics!
In all, I learnt a lot from the people I met at DFID and they were also keen to learn from me. I am very much looking forward to the return leg where Prof Tim Wheeler will visit me at the Centre for Biological Science, University of Southampton. I think the paring scheme was a great success and the vast majority of the participants (81%) agree with me so make sure you sign up this year when applications open on 3 February.