When applying for the British Ecological Society Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme I was unsure what the experience would entail, but I was excited to hear that I had been chosen to spend 2 days with Alun Davies, the Welsh Minister for Natural Resources and Food. I had received my itinerary weeks before, and so I knew that our first event was the official opening of the Welsh Biodiversity Partnership, which is a group of stakeholders from the public, private and voluntary sectors that are seeking to identify knowledge gaps in the data relating to the biodiversity of terrestrial and aquatic systems of Wales. The event took place in a Cardiff University building and I felt quite at home in that environment as I have worked in academic institutions all my life so far. However, we were there for less than half an hour before needing to rush off to our next meetings. For me this involved appointments at Cathays Park with a number of senior civil servants with remits in the Natural Resources department.
Once I realized that I’d be holding those meetings on my own I rapidly thought of some pertinent questions and met with Hazel Drewitt (National Resources Wales), Kevin Austin (Sustainable Land Management) and Rhodri Asby (Climate Change and Natural Resource Policy). This gave me a whistle-stop tour through the organisational structure of the department and some of the challenges that arise when trying to marry politics and science. It also allowed me to express some of my views about the difficulty scientists have in communicating their research to policymakers.
In the afternoon I took my place in the public gallery down at the Senedd and watched the Minister answer questions on all aspects of his portfolio, from mussel farming, to flood defences, to village greens. A debate on the future of Wales in the EU followed and it was strange to hear a discussion on this subject from a Wales-only point of view, disconnected from the rest of the UK. This feeling of separateness was repeated during my stay, as it became clear to me that while the Welsh Government is always very much aware of what their UK counterparts are doing, they still feel free to go their own way, and do the best for Wales.
The second day gave me a closer view of the Minister’s work, with a Radio 5 Live interview to kick the day off, followed by a non-stop sequence of briefings, meetings and questioning by the committee for sustainability. Being able to sit in these meetings and get a feel for the kinds of discussions, decisions and compromises that happen on a half-hourly basis, gave me some understanding of the massive machine that is government. The amount of background research and collation of data that contributes to a 5 page summary document is quite staggering, as is the volume of knowledge that the experts and aides need to be able to call on when necessary.
The overwhelming feeling around the Sennedd buildings is that of industriousness, with a friendly but focused atmosphere. There is definitely a greater level of pressure than is found in academic settings, with many more rapidly-approaching deadlines, and greater ramifications if deadlines are not met. Equally, there is a greater feeling of getting stuff done, which must be satisfying.
From an ecologist’s point of view, it was interesting to see the attempt to use an ecosystem approach in all new Natural Resource policy, which means on the most general level linking up air, water and land. This extends further, with a strong attempt being made to promote a joined-up approach to policymaking in general, to take account of impacts on people and the environment concurrently.
When working in government, it must be important not to be daunted by the number of tasks that need to be addressed and decisions that need to be made. It is also vital to recognise that it is a complex process that requires time to effect a recognisable change. However, I did get a taste of how invigorating it must be to know that opportunities are available for real change to occur, and if scientists can play a greater role in that process then that must only be a good thing.
By Catherine Preece
Post-doctoral Research Associate at the University of Sheffield
Follow Catherine on Twitter @CathePreece