Dr Janice Drew is based at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health at the University of Aberdeen. She is involved in nutrition studies, using human volunteers, to assess health status and responses to different foods consumed and lifestyle changes. Research carried out at the Institute helps the food industry to make their products healthier and provide advice to the public on how best to ensure they maintain good health.

In December 2013 she participated in the Royal Society’s ‘Week in Westminster’ – part of our Pairing scheme with the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) to build bridges between parliamentarians, Civil Servants and some of the best research scientists in the UK. This is her diary of the experience (you can find out more why she was keen to get involved at the end of the post).

Participants of the Royal Society GO Pairing scheme during the 'Week in Westminster'

Participants of the Royal Society GO Pairing scheme during the ‘Week in Westminster’

1st December 2013

My week in Westminster began with dinner on The Strand with our host from the Royal Society and the other scientists participating in the pairing scheme. I was struck by the great diversity within our group of scientists and how quickly interaction commenced. Science is by necessity becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary and it would appear that in addition to shadowing our political partners this week our scientists will be imbibing some multi-disciplinary science and ideas.

2nd December 2013

After a relatively leisurely start with a tour of the Palace of Westminster, providing a fascinating and illuminating insight on the history of the development of democracy in the UK, the pace stepped up. Following a change of venue we emerged into another vast space in Portcullis House to engage in an information packed series of talks and discussions on Parliament, Government and science. This included inspirational talks from previous participants on what can potentially be achieved from a scientist’s pairing week in Westminster. The talks and discussions that followed conveyed how science plays an important part in the work of our Parliament. Very useful practical and pertinent information was provided on how scientists can become more involved. This was a key message that I learned today that I intend to follow up on return to my University. I was also truly surprised at the level and breadth of input on science that is incorporated in the affairs of Parliament. Such a lot of information to filter and communicate to inform Parliament of the relevant scientific issues of the day. In turn, a lot for me to digest, through not only the remainder of my week in Westminster, but how this knowledge and experience will change my perceptions of science and politics in the future.

3rd December 2013

Back to the Palace of Westminster today for another jam packaged day of science and the Parliament. This began with an engaging talk by a veteran civil servant, Jill Rutter, from the Institute of Government. She very convincingly stated the case for scientists to exploit the fact that currently the upper echelons of Whitehall and the top ranks of the civil service are “science-free” zones. Scientists have a significant and valuable contribution to make in explaining and interpreting science and technologies and their application in solving problems relevant to society to non-specialists in Parliament. However, she cautioned that scientists must remember that scientific evidence is only a part of the discussion surrounding policy.

This was further corroborated by the Department of Energy and Climate Change Chief Scientific Advisor, David MacKay. He elaborated on the significant contribution and influence that scientists have in an arena where scientific expertise is sought to inform on policy decision making. Oliver Grant from the Horizon Scanning Centre, Government Office for Science, enlightened us on the discussions and strategies for projection of future research requirements. This aspect of science and Parliament incorporates more difficult concepts and scenarios and encompasses some of the most daunting problems facing society in the future.

This was followed by Chris Flemming, Head of Data at Government Office for Science, summarising his top ten tips for academics to engage with politicians and nicely summed up input from the previous presentations.

  1. Reviewing policy that is out there
  2. Being proactive in building relationships
  3. Providing solutions to problems of officials
  4. Minding differences between lobbying and giving advice
  5. Holding realistic expectations
  6. Recognising different cultures
  7. Using existing vehicles e.g. Societies to engage with the process
  8. Testing the water e.g. the Royal Society GO pairing scheme
  9. Being persistent
  10. Seizing the opportunity – now is a good time!

A different perspective was provided in the presentation and interactive session that followed from members of the Resilience and Infrastructure, Government Office for Science. This introduced yet another requirement for scientific input in situations where emergency procedures are invoked. The penultimate presentation of the day was from Alexandra Saxon from RCUK. This provoked a heated debate on the implementation of Excellence with Impact and the requirement to deal with this aspect in scientific research and grant applications to the research councils. I was bemused by this since it is no longer a new concept in funded research. Scientists have a tendency to take a defensive stance on this which is often counter-productive. It is a reality that is part of the research landscape. Hopefully the venting and discussion may have led to some empathy with the expectation that investment in research does lead to expectations by the investors and that impact is a diverse and varied output.

The session ended with a proposal by a previous alumnus of the Royal Society GO pairing scheme, Natalia Lawrence (University of Exeter), to engage in her proposal for a UK Evidence Information Service. The service would be aimed at providing a proactive approach to putting policy makers in touch with relevant scientific experts and a reactive mode to ensure rapid match making to link politicians with academics in STEM, medicine and social science.

The key messages of today for me were that scientists have a role in offering a wide and diverse range of inputs to politicians. However, it is important to understand that how the scientific evidence input is applied in decision and policy making is a preserve of the politicians and not the scientists.

4th December 2013

Change of venue today to meet my shadow partner, Amanda Dickens, Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser within the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). Following a brief review of schedules and rearrangements to the morning meetings induced a Week in Westminster systems overload. I realised mid-way through my next meeting that I was talking to David Griffiths-Johnson who deals with policy related to the pharmaceutical industry and not Mike Rowe from DEFRA! Scientists participating in the scheme need to beware of this phenomenon when bombarded with new names and faces!

Following my meeting at BIS I took a breath of London’s version of fresh air on a brisk walk to the Palace of Westminster for a quick caffeine fix to revive my failing brain prior to meeting my local north east Scotland MP Malcolm Bruce on his way to Prime Ministers Questions (PMQ). The pressure on time is infective and we proceeded to engage in a rapid and quick fire discussion on topics ranging from science and the Scottish referendum, women in the oil industry and the political landscape shaping radical restructuring of policy driven science in Scotland. The latter has led to radical changes in my own career in science. I very much appreciated this brief meeting with Malcolm Bruce and hope to continue our discussion on my return to Aberdeen. I then proceeded to take a seat in the public gallery for PMQ. This was tasked to Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, in David Cameron’s absence on a visit to China. PMQ is a must see and much more enjoyable viewed from the gallery as opposed to TV.

Back at BIS for a lunch break and discussions with my pairing partner on our introduction to the Royal Society scheme and issues surrounding our respective roles in science related careers. The meetings that followed allowed me insights and updates on policy and regulations surrounding genetically modified organisms and the differences in approaches of the UK and Scottish Parliaments with Mike Rowe from DEFRA. Then an introduction to public health policy in England with Mark Bush (Food and Diet Composition, Public Health England). There definitely appeared to be much common ground here between England and Scotland. A round up on the day with my pairing partner has provoked a number of areas that might be explored on her reciprocal visit to the University of Aberdeen.

5th December 2013

This morning I had an opportunity to review various meetings and discussions I was involved in during this week. This was extremely useful in allowing me time to reflect and galvanise my next steps. This prompted further contact with Malcolm Bruce MP to outline follow up discussions relating to opportunities for further interaction with elected politicians, their advisors and researchers and civil servants, including the proposal for a UK Evidence Information Service that we heard about from a previous Royal Society pairing scheme participant, Natalia Lawrence.

The day was rounded off with a visit to the Royal Society of London to learn more about this organisation from past to present and beyond. A fitting way to end our week on the Royal Society GO Pairing Scheme. It will be interesting to determine how sustainable my interactions in the political arena are once distanced from the Westminster vibe. However, I am feeling very positive about the prospect and also looking forward to my next visit to the Royal Society for the pairing scheme feedback session in January 2014.

Before she took part, we asked Janice to tell us more about why she signed up to the Pairing scheme:

“Following a shadowing scheme visit to the Scottish Parliament a few years ago I was enlightened considerably on the diverse and often conflicting demands of organisations and individuals in generating the policies that have led to many changes in my career. Now looking back I am very aware that politics has played a major role in directing my entire career. Government policies have shaped the scientific landscape and directly influenced the research that is being conducted in the UK. Consequently I have a fairly broad expertise and have worked in diverse scientific fields. The scientific issues of the day have led to radical changes in my career path that have taken me from studying the genes that influence plant growth and development, to investigating how the human brain regulates our appetite and how diet and lifestyle influence our risk of gut cancers. More recently the research institute where I worked for many years is now encompassed within a University. This has proved to be a very different research environment with many new demands. My research is moving in a completely new direction, again dictated by Government responses to evidence on the changes in the world we live in – often this evidence is provided by other scientists,. I have also learned that contrary to my previous perceptions, politicians are interested in engaging with scientists. However, this requires a pro-active approach by scientists and creation of opportunities to conduct useful and constructive engagement. The shadowing schemes are extremely helpful in this regard. Following my visit to the Scottish Parliament I have been very conscious of this. My previous experience has increased my confidence in engaging with politics, politicians and the many advisors who work alongside them. I regularly attend the Science and the Parliament meetings held by the Royal Society of Chemistry in Edinburgh. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my views related to the Scottish Parliament at a debate on science funding by one of the MSPs I contacted following this event a few years ago. It was also a massive surprise to realise how interested my colleagues were to hear news of my time at the Scottish Parliament. I consider that the interest of scientists and the many support staff working in science is often under estimated by the organisations where these individuals work. The world is facing ever more challenging issues and science has a massive role to play in tackling these challenges. How this is organised will very much be dependent on generation and implementation of Government policies. Scientists need to be involved in the debate. My participation in the Royal Society Civil Servant Pairing Scheme at Westminster will no doubt be an exciting and fascinating experience and I look forward to sharing the experience with colleagues and the wider community.”