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From lab benches to the green benches: how the IOP’s POST fellows contribute to science policy

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Parliament from Westminster Bridge. Credit: Matthew Dixon/Shutterstock

Excited by the prospect of a front-line experience of using science to inform policymaking, I applied for the Institute of Physics’s POST fellowship and traded my usual surroundings of lasers and superconducting magnets for the impressive environment of Westminster.

This three-month secondment scheme places physics PhD students such as myself in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) – parliament’s in-house source of balanced and impartial analysis of policy issues relating to science and technology.

Starting just before Christmas, my task for the next three months was to produce a four-page briefing document for Parliament – a POSTnote – on financial technology (“fintech“). These briefing documents are the core of POST’s work, and provide MPs and peers with accessible overviews of science and technology issues.

Now, at slightly more than halfway through the fellowship, I have had a fascinating experience researching fintech – a diverse area that describes new applications of technology in financial services, from peer-to-peer lending to digital currencies, and the t-shirts of startups to the suits of large financial institutions. The bulk of my work has been conducting 20 or so interviews with a range of stakeholders – from academics to industry, regulators to government departments – and distilling expert opinion into a digestible form for parliamentarians.

It has been both fascinating to learn about a new area from sector specialists, as well as to gain an insight into how science is used in policymaking. Making the transition from the physics lab to POST, I have been particularly struck by the breadth and interconnectedness of science policy issues, and the challenge in navigating this to provide a summary that is both detailed enough to do a subject justice, while accessible enough for parliamentarians – something I think POST’s briefings manage to do impressively well.

Aside from the interviews, I have also been able to attend several conferences, sit in on a select committee, and enjoy discussions with the other ten or so POST fellows who are studying PhDs in a host of different areas and working on an equally wide-ranging set of POSTnotes. Particularly rewarding in my experience so far has been the balance between being given a high level of autonomy, while receiving an excellent level of expert advice and guidance from my supervisor, and the other staff at POST.

Aside from fintech, being at POST has also offered some fantastic opportunities to explore, and learn more about, the workings of parliament. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to experience Prime Minister’s Question Time first-hand, and this week I made the 334-step journey up Elizabeth Tower to meet Big Ben. I have also enjoyed repeatedly getting lost in Westminster Palace, and hearing the appealing, but apparently mythical, stories that the line in “toe the line”, and the bag in “it’s in the bag” are in the House of Commons Chamber.

The last month-and-a-bit at POST, away from the lasers and magnets, has offered an incredibly intellectually stimulating environment. To anyone considering dipping their toe into the world of science in policy, I can thoroughly recommend giving it a try.

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Sam Bayliss

Sam Bayliss

Sam Bayliss is a PhD student in the optoelectronics group at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. During 2016 he worked at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology as an IOP/POST fellow.
Sam Bayliss
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