Over 100 delegates, representing the full diversity of the Faculty of Science at the University of Sheffield alongside delegates from universities in Leeds, York, Manchester and Birmingham, congregated at the Edge Conference Centre. The atmosphere was already buzzing at registration coffee, as people made the most of the opportunity to network with like-minded individuals who shared an interest in how scientific research shapes political agendas. But there was no time to waste; with such a packed programme strict timekeeping was essential!
Dr Kate Dommet (of the Crick Centre for the Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield) started the day with her talk 'Are we in a time of evidence based policy?' This highlighted how essential it is for scientists to learn to demonstrate the impact of their work with the increasing pressure for 'impact- led' research. Which raises the question: is government policy driving science more than science is driving policy? Whilst it feels satisfying to work on a project that could obviously contribute to the greater good, there is still need for 'blue skies' research where the ultimate benefit, if any, is not immediately obvious. A good example is the internet - an unplanned 'spin-off' benefit from the large hadron collider at CERN.
Following this, Professor Dame Bridget Ogilvie entertained us with her talk 'Science and technology policy successes and failures'. She opened with a brief description of her career and raised a gleeful chuckle from the audience when she recounted how, on joining an all- male cohort of rural sciences students within their second year, the average mark shot up by 15% (men work better when there are women around!). She then described some of her encounters with policy makers during her career, which included working at the Wellcome Trust. The examples she gave, from her own experience and elsewhere, demonstrated that governments and authorities often 'do not understand the value of basic science'. The potential of liquid crystal displays (LCDs), for instance, was underestimated by Roche, the employer of their inventor Martin Schadt, and the company initially decided not to pursue them, giving the Japanese company Seiko an opportunity to develop the technology. Dame Ogilvie also highlighted how improper reporting by the media can damage beneficial research, citing the examples of how the MMR vaccine became erroneously associated with autism and how GM crops still suffer from a “Frankenfood” image despite their potential benefits and years of research. Results alone don't always speak for themselves; as scientists, we must develop healthy channels of communication to engage governments and the public.
Fortunately, Sasha Leigh (NERC Policy Innovation Manager) was able to provide some practical advice on this in her talk 'How can scientists link their research with policy?' She described the strategies used by NERC to broker partnerships with government agencies to help excellent research to be used more widely. Engaging with the civil service from the start can help strengthen 'impact statements' in grant proposals, as scientists can demonstrate a commitment to applying the results of their research. Research councils in turn, can be an excellent source of contacts and provide guidance and funding to establish such connections.
Following this, Professor Andrew Watkinson (an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia) provided some examples of successful partnerships where scientific research had a clear role in influencing government policy in his talk “Influencing or informing, should scientists be advocates?” His case studies included research that helped to shape legislation on managing flood risks: in this case, the National Ecosystem Assessment being co designed with DEFRA, allowing policy workers to be involved from the very beginning of the evidence- gathering process. However, Professor Watkinson also cautioned how it can be frustratingly difficult to get different organisations to work together - even when they share similar aims and sympathies.
Professor Watkinson also highlighted the increasing need to demonstrate impact in order to secure scientific research funding. Even if we don't engage with the public or the media, every scientist who fills out a grant proposal is effectively acting as an advocate for science! Typically, research acts as a 'linear pipe' model, with money inputted at one end and slowly, methodically, progressing through basic, then applied research, development into applications and then technology transfer. All too often, governments are asked to keep adding money in to this pipeline and just trust that some benefit will come out in the end. In an era of constant cutbacks, this isn't very sustainable. Professor Watkinson introduced the idea of Pasteur's Quadrant (see slides on the Conference 2014 resources page), stating that too many scientists fall into the bracket where their work is 'not much use and not very interesting'! Whilst that might feel a bit harsh to members of the research community and was certainly controversial, we have to remember that MPs and Government bodies can have very different ideas about what constitutes “useful and interesting” science!
Lunch provided an opportunity to digest the morning’s topics, whilst sampling delights as diverse as strawberries and sushi. The afternoon showed no slackening in the pace with Daniel Wood (an Outreach Officer for the Houses of Parliament) starting us off again with his talk “How to engage with Parliament”. This gave some practical advice about 'getting at' those all-important MPs. First of all, don't go to the MPs themselves, target their secretary – the “gatekeepers” of the diary! Introduce yourself, state why your concern is relevant and say exactly what you would like them to do. Apparently, MPs receive hundreds of letters that express great passion for a subject, but do not suggest any course of action. Given that MPs are so time pressed, it can only help to give them a few ideas! And whilst it may be so easy to just fill in an online petition or send an email apparently the personalised letter is still the most effective way in. But above all, be brief and don’t ramble on!
Then it was straight into the activities sessions where the delegates split into two groups to either discuss policymaking with six of the speakers in a speed-networking session or to learn more about engaging with select committees. I attended the latter of these and it certainly answered many questions I had about how exactly scientists can present their evidence directly to the government. I was amazed to learn that during a 'call for evidence' that could help to shape new legislation, anyone, indeed ANYONE at all - a PhD student, you, your neighbour - can submit written evidence and the parliamentary office is obliged to read it! Only the best, most well reasoned evidence-givers get called up to submit oral evidence however. Being able to handle actual examples of submitted evidence gave a tantalising insight into the cogs that drive the evidence-gathering machine.
We reconvened for Dr Alisa Becker’s (Programme Manager, Physical Sciences, Royal Society of Chemistry) talk “From Research to the Real World”. She firstly promoted learned societies as the ideal way for scientists’ voices to be heard by policy-makers more clearly. She presented a range of initiatives designed to help scientists to gain experience of working with Parliament, including the Westminster Fellowship Scheme at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and the annual poster competition Set for Britain (where early-career scientists can present posters of their research in the Houses of Commons). She also encouraged more individual actions, such as blogging about your work, having a Twitter feed and writing to MPs. For the latter, she recommended the 3-2-1 rule: give 3 main facts about your research, then 2 ways in which this could help the MP/their policy and then state exactly what you want them to do in return!
The talks were concluded by Dr Monica Darnbrough (Trustee at Newton’s Apple Foundation and ex-scientific civil servant) who gave some answers to the question “What career path shall I choose to influence policy?” She encouraged us to consider roles within the civil service, science consultancy companies, learned societies and trade associations, as well as beicoming a political adviser. She also pointed out that the House of Commons is only one aspect of Government, but of course the process of becoming a Lord is less straightforward than that of an MP!
The day was finally rounded off with a lively panel discussion. The overriding message was that scientists frequently forget that they are trained to fundamentally think about the world in a different way - which means they run the risk of losing the ability to communicate to the general public and to policy-makers. Hence, the audience were urged to take advantage of any media and communication training available and to take part in discussions and debates. To those who raised the concern that engaging with the media/government could potentially taint their professional reputation, Dame Ogilvie had a succinct answer:
“Communication always has a risk and you can’t always predict that risk… but communicate you must”.
On that note, the Science in Policy committee would like to thank all the speakers and delegates for making the conference such a successful and interesting day!
By Caroline Wood
PhD student in Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/