First Lynne Hobson from Parliamentary Outreach gave us an introduction to the structure of Parliament, and in particular, how the work of the House of Lords complements the House of Commons. Although the House of Lords can have an elitist image, Lynne argued that it is actually more representative of British society than the Commons, representing a wider range of ethnicities, professions and industries. She also disagreed with the view that having the two houses is an idiosyncratic system that slows down the process of law-making. "The Lords aren't there to cause trouble - it is about creating a debate to get the best laws possible, ones that are robust and fit for purpose" she said.
Both the Lords and Commons have select committees, who commission inquiries into specific topics. Some of these committees are permanent, such as the Committee for Human Rights, whereas others are reactive, formed in response to major events, such as the banking crisis. The only committee which has the same name for both houses is the Science and Technology Committee, and we were very lucky to hear from Dr Cat Ball, Policy Analyst for the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords.
After introducing us to the committee members (an eclectic bunch including a former head of MI5!), Cat described how their work reflects the most topical issues of the moment. "We are currently taking oral evidence for the potential uses of GM insects and our next big inquiry will investigate the relationship between EU membership and science". During these inquiries, members of the public are invited to submit evidence - this can be from world- leading experts, people who simply have an interest or even PhD students! Even though thousands of people may submit evidence, the administrative staff "read and consider everything and unless it's completely barmy, we will put it forward to the committee". But do these enquiries actually make any difference? Cat gave us some compelling examples that they do, including a 2011 enquiry into nuclear research which the Government used to develop its nuclear strategy up to 2050. Nevertheless, Cat stressed that the committees are strictly limited to an advisory role. "We have much more of a scrutinising function than one of law-making" she said.
For all these inquiries and for informing parliamentary debates, it is vital that MPs and select committees have all the information they need right at their fingertips. Not surprisingly, Parliament is supported by a huge army of administrative staff who play a critical role in 'keeping everything working'. Dr Grahame Danby, Clerk to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, gave us an insight into this behind the scenes work. Part of his role involves signposting MPs and ministers to the correct department that can answer their questions and to retrieve key information from the vast repositories stored in the Government libraries. In one famous example, an MP once asked which department he should go to for information about asteroids. The reply: "Well, the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) deal with space but if it comes closer to earth, it might become an issue for the Ministry of Defence".
Grahame stressed how the pace is in a completely different league to the sometimes ponderous world of academia. "An MP might literally only have a few minutes before they have to be in the Chamber" he said. "I don't have time to commission a PhD for every question I'm asked". The libraries get a lot of use, with the clerks receiving enquiries on every topic under the sun. "MPs get approached with all sorts of problems, especially from their constituents" Grahame said. "If one of David Cameron's constituents complained to him about the height of their neighbour's hedge, he would almost certainly refer to the library for guidance". MPs also 'like to know what they are talking about' for media appearances and public debates. Hence, Grahame found himself writing briefing notes on the Higgs Boson the day before its discovery was announced! More recent examples of issues that have drawn heavily on published scientific research include plain packaging for tobacco, ash dieback and how neonicinotoid insecticides affect bees.
It was a fascinating overview of a little- known and often unappreciated range of careers which cross the boundary between being a scientist and being a policy maker.
Meanwhile, keep watching, we're off to Westminster on the 17th November!
Highlights from the questions:
Do select committees like receiving evidence from academics during an enquiry?
Grahame: "I personally like getting information from Academics as you can tend to trust them to be impartial and their research is put to a rigorous peer review process"
Can even PhD students submit evidence?
Grahame: "The select committees tend to go for heads of departments and Professors but there is no reason why a PhD student could not submit evidence"
Cat: "We welcome input from early-career researchers. In many cases, they will be the ones most affected by new legislation".
What happens if someone submits untruthful evidence?
Grahame; "You used to be locked up in Big Ben....that doesn't happen now but 'contempt of Parliament' doesn't look good on your CV!"
Do you have any advice on how to contact MPs with scientific issues?
Lynne: "Be BRIEF - ask yourself, 'Could my MP read this on the train?' Tell them who you are, why you are contacting them, what the issue is and why it is relevant to them now. And certainly don't use any academic lingo!"
What is the main limitation of the select committees?
Cat: "The main limitation is that, despite putting a lot of time, detail and trouble into our recommendations, we can't force the Government to do anything. All we can do is hope things move along".
Grahame: "Yes, but it does take forward the public debate. The only way things happen in a democracy is through public debate".
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/