Last November I left the lab to spend a week at the House of Commons in Westminster. The visit was part of the pairing scheme run by the Royal Society with support from the Government Office for Science, where scientists and MPs take turns to shadow each other to learn about research and policymaking.
The overarching aim of the Royal Society pairing scheme is to build bridges between parliamentarians and some of the best scientists in the UK. The scheme provides scientists with a behind-the-scenes insight into how policy is formed and how research can be used to make evidence-based decisions. It also gives parliamentarians and civil servants the opportunity to investigate the science behind their decision-making processes and improves their access to scientific evidence.
There were 30 or so researchers in total taking part in this year’s scheme. The week began with a Sunday evening dinner in a local restaurant, and we were all put straight to work in selecting 15 committee members (of which I was lucky enough to be one) to take part in the mock Select Committee, and subsequently appointing a chair from the committee (thankfully not me).
On the Monday, we received our orientation around the Houses of Parliament, including a tour of the buildings and a seminar from Alasdair MacKenzie of the Houses of Parliament Outreach Office.
Following that, Nancy Lee and Sarah Rappaport from the Wellcome Trust talked us through the process of performing a case study around an area of new scientific policy. To implement this, we discussed the evidence that was available to policymakers at the time they were having to form new policy for the first time governing the area of mitochondrial donation, the principle behind three-parent in-vitro fertilisation.
The day culminated with a reception in parliament where Jo Johnson MP, minister for science and universities, spoke about the value of UK research and the important role of scientific advice in parliament. Nicola Blackwood MP, the chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee also spoke about the Committee’s plans to investigate the evidence underpinning Government policies.
On Tuesday, I spent the day shadowing Lilian Greenwood MP on her busy schedule. I started the day observing her giving a speech at the UK Aviation Conference. Following this, I attended a number of meetings, including a meeting of the Shadow Transport Committee.
I spent Wednesday in the Commons Chamber, witnessing the proceedings of the day, including questions to the prime minister and the reading of the Comprehensive Spending Review and Autumn Statement. This was followed by the mock select committee, which took place in the House of Lords, where we interrogated four witnesses on whether to establish a new government Office of Scientific Responsibility.
On Thursday we sat with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), where we were split into groups to formulate responses to an emergency scenario around an outbreak of the fictional Central African Republic Respiratory Syndrome. Later sessions covered various topical areas currently featuring in the work of the Government Office for Science, followed by a closing speech and question-and-answer session from Professor Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser.
The pairing scheme is not just about scientists visiting parliament: Greenwood will get hands-on experience of neuroimaging research in Nottingham when she gets to visit me at the NIHR Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit and the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre at the University of Nottingham early next year.
I would highly recommend the scheme to any research scientists at any stage of their career. It gave me a real insight into the constraints the government are under in terms of the short amount of time they have to get their head around a concept before sometimes making potentially life-changing policy decisions based on a scientist’s advice. It’s also a really great way to demonstrate to members of parliament and civil servants how research really works.
Further information about the Royal Society pairing scheme, as well as case studies, can be found online. Applications are now open until 9 March, so get involved if you want to take part in the scheme too.