After a stroll around the pond in St James’s Park, I met Vicki Charlton at 10am on a bright November morning. Vicki is one of two specialists for the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee, which scrutinises the work of the Government by conducting inquiries into topical areas and suggesting policy improvements. The Committee typically has several reports in the pipeline, so I spent the morning getting to grips with some of the current inquiries: reading a brief for Wednesday’s evidence session on Biometric Data and proof-reading a brief for an upcoming evidence session on GM crops. I also set to work compiling a spreadsheet of useful organisations which the Committee is in contact with, such as learned societies, which formed the framework for a database of contact details. In the afternoon I attended the introductory meeting for the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, which partners MPs with academics for an exchange of work experience and insights. Dr Elizabeth Rough, the other Committee specialist, gave a talk on the work of the Science & Technology Select Committee, which brings together members of the major political parties to investigate policy-relevant science issues. Select Committee members leave their politics at the door – a point emphasised by Dr Chris Tyler: “some of the most savage interrogations of government ministers come from their own party”. I also learned about the Committee’s counterpart in the House of Lords, from its policy analyst Katherine Bainbridge. The two Science & Technology Select Committees maintain informal discussions on topics of interest, although the Lords Committee commissions fewer inquiries and has fewer staff. Academics were encouraged to get in contact with the Committees, for example: providing information on academic work, submitting evidence, and inviting the Committees to relevant events. Next, Dr Sarah Barber outlined the role of the House of Commons Library, and Dr Chris Tyler discussed the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Unlike the Committees and the Libraries, which have counterparts in both Houses of Parliament, POST operates across the board and aims to build links between those who know and those who decide.
Tuesday: House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee
Tuesday began with a conference on horizon scanning based on a recent report by the Committee. Government horizon scanning, in a nutshell, is analysing potential future events and preparing relevant policies. I’d read the report prior to starting work experience, so I was familiar with the key recommendations for government horizon scanning outlined by the Chair of the Committee, Andrew Miller MP, in his speech: greater transparency and communication; inclusion of industry, academia and Parliament; relocation of the Government Office for Science to the Cabinet Office. The need for agreement on a better working definition of horizon scanning was also mentioned: not just “scanning the horizon” (which had been one minister’s attempt at an explanation!). A range of speakers from government, academia and policy-relevant institutions then offered their perspectives. After lunch I met with Julian Huppert MP to discuss his views on science in Parliament – having been a researcher himself, he told me that MPs have a tremendous power for influence but that at times it can be “like banging your head against a brick wall … even worse than in research!” Finally, I chatted with Civil Service fast-streamer Giles Deacon, currently working as the Second Clerk for the Committee, and sat in on his briefing call preparing a witness for a forthcoming evidence session.
Wednesday: House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee
Having worked with the Committee’s staff for a couple of days and learnt a lot about what goes on behind the scenes, it was great to attend an oral evidence session, held in the Palace of Westminster. The Committee had a short private meeting beforehand, which I was able to observe, and then the first panel of witnesses was ushered into the grand, rather sombre room to give evidence on Biometric Data. Evidence submitted to Select Committees can be written or oral, with witnesses sometimes called to give oral evidence following a written submission. The evidence can be more akin to lawyers’ evidence than scientific evidence: in this session, witnesses responded to questions based on a wealth of expertise and background knowledge, although some evidence sessions are very in-depth and scientific. Three panels gave evidence, from the vantage points of academia, industry and external organisations. The Committee staff meeting followed this, and involved the organisation of various staff duties and updates on current work. In the afternoon I worked on a scoping note for a potential future inquiry. This is a document laying out the background to the topic and providing potential lines of enquiry. The Committee staff produce scoping notes on a range of topics, enabling the members of the Committee to make informed decisions when choosing inquiries. I also met with Martin Smith in Portcullis House. Previously the Policy Manager at the British Ecological Society, Martin joined the House of Commons Education Select Committee a year ago and it was great to hear about his experiences of working in Parliament.
Thursday: House of Commons Library
On Thursday I worked with Ed White in the House of Commons Library. The Library answers enquiries from MPs on a huge range of topics, and has a very fast turnaround: enquires are typically answered within 48 hours – a very different pace from the Select Committee, where big inquiries are generally conducted over 6 months, although small inquiries can be turned around very quickly when needed. I was given the task of answering an enquiry from start to finish: research on the oil and gas sector. Starting with a brief introduction on Wikipedia to orientate myself, I quickly moved onto trawling through hefty reports to compile my answer. Ed then checked my work and showed me how to format the references, and together we submitted my response to the MP. At first glance it was a simple question to answer, but had taken me several hours! I also met with Sarah Hartwell-Naguib, the Head of the Science and Environment Section of the Library. Sarah highlighted the difference between Parliamentary and civil service roles: Parliament scrutinises Government policy, whilst the civil service supports Governmental decision-making. The Select Committees, Libraries and POST are all Parliamentary bodies.
Friday: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Whilst the Library has a stronger focus on policy and Government, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is more focussed on science and academia. POST has 8 specialist advisors, who write and coordinate the writing of POSTnotes: succinct 4-page briefings which are treated as fact in Parliament. Many POSTnotes are written by POST Fellows from academia, affectionately referred to as POSTies, and each Fellow produces one POSTnote in 3 months, a process involving extensive research and interviews before condensing and editing the information. POSTnotes are reviewed externally by as many as 20 people before being finalised. POST is able to carry out longer-range research than the Library, on a range of topical science issues decided on by a board of MPs, Lords and staff from several offices in the Lords and Commons. I was working for the Head of the Energy and Environment Section, Dr Jonny Wentworth, collating information on emerging technologies – some first-hand experience of horizon scanning! From a bafflingly long list of sometimes bizarre innovations, predicted by Imperial College London, I researched future technologies to provide descriptions and policy implications. It was interesting to delve into current legislation and come up with possible policy recommendations. One of the POSTies, Beth, was leaving that day so the week was rounded off with drinks in the House of Lords bar! Altogether an interesting, informative and inspiring week in Parliament.
By Angie White
Follow Angie on Twitter @AngelaClaireW
Angie is a PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield.