Our first speaker, Kate Dommett from the Crick Centre in Sheffield, argued that all scientists –not just Professors – should be entering political debates: “Don’t see Parliament as something to engage with at the end – think of it from the outset to make sure your research can influence policy recommendations” she said. However, the alien culture of politics– with its time pressures and thousands of issues at stake- deters many scientists from approaching MPs. In this case, it can be better to engage with parliamentary staff, such as civil servants and committees, who have longer-term posts and often a genuine interest in research. But to have an influence, you need to explain the relevance of your work and for this Kate recommends keeping a blog: apparently, parliamentary staff see these as a ‘godsend’ for understanding science! “Get to know Parliament and build relationships” Kate added. “Follow relevant Select Committees on Twitter, arrange a visit to Parliament and sign up to the Parliamentary Outreach Newsletter”.
But with so many voices in Parliament, how do we make sure that the science is not lost, particularly during a crisis? “We are now in a dangerous place, not so much ‘post-truth’, but where people ask “Why should we believe anything you say?”” said Stevie de Saille, from the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA). Given that unpredictable events – such as volcanic eruptions or pandemic outbreaks – are becoming more common, it is critical that we have effective procedures for bringing relevant evidence into emergency debates. To address this, INGSA was founded to improve the use of evidence in informing public policy, and promote an international ideal for a scientific advisory community.
Part of INGSA’s work is building the capacity of advisory groups through hosting workshops that feature immersive roleplays. During the afternoon session, we were able to experience some of these case studies for ourselves, which forced us to grapple with the conflicting interests of scientists, politicians and the public. Even for a fictional scenario, the issues can be complex with no simple solutions. “You very rarely get clear information that tells you ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that’” said Stevie. Clearly, when scientists meet politicians they need more than research skills but also the ability to communicate, negotiate and emphasise.
The same rings true for the European Parliament, as Linda McAvan, MEP for Yorkshire and Humber, described. “It’s not a case of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels dreaming up things to annoy the British public; there are a lot of people involved in decisions; a lot of deliberation, talking and compromise” she said. MEPs scrutinise each drafted law line by line and make countless revisions until a consensus is reached – all while being lobbied by campaign groups, industry, pharma companies and the like. As such, she advises scientists hoping to get involved in a debate to be strategic. “There is no point lobbying anyone and everyone. Find out who is working on that decisions and when, then get to the right person at the right time”.
Rebecca Hill, journalist and online editor of PublicTechnology, then gave some practical advice on how to use the media to get your research onto the public stage, where policy makers can find it. First of all, be patient: “I’ve met researchers who say ‘I’m not speaking to you until you’ve read all my papers’” said Rebecca. “But you shouldn’t expect journalists to know as much about your science as you do”. Remember that writing for the media is very different to composing a research paper: avoid jargon and focus on one simple message. “The whole story has to be grasped in the first paragraph, especially for online news where you are competing with the latest celebrity scandal” said Rebecca. Don’t be afraid to pitch your story, but if you don’t want to approach an editor yourself, then your institute’s Press Office or the Science Media Centre can bridge the gap.
During the afternoon, William Bird (formerly Strategic Health Advisor for Natural England) described how we often need to be creative to translate scientific evidence into behavioural changes. Junk food may be frequently blamed for the obesity crisis but William argues that there is another cause: “We were designed to be connected to nature and yet 54% of the world population lives in cities”. Studies have shown that decreased access to nature increases depression and stress, putting our bodies in a state of chronic inflammation; this is increasingly thought to be the cause of a host of modern ailments, including dementia, cancer, arthritis and obesity. “We need to deal with the root source and that is where nature, social cohesion and connectedness come in” said William. Simply telling people what to do is unlikely to work – especially when they are battling with depression. Instead, success comes when we “hide physical activity behind a greater experience” – such as GreenGyms, or the “Beat the Street” initiative, where people can earn points by running, walking or cycling around their town.
Our final speaker, Jonathan Wentworth, gave us an overview of the work of the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). As an advisory panel for the Government, POST “is there to influence the debate but we are impartial: we don’t make recommendations”. Besides providing up-to-date evidence for current issues, POST also has a role in horizon scanning and identifying emerging trends. “It is very hard to get politicians to think about the future, as their job is so reactive” Jonathan said. For early-career scientists considering a career in the policy arena, a POST Fellowship can be an invaluable experience. “Most of our work is actually done by PhD interns who write POST Briefing Notes for MPs” said Jonathan (for more on the scheme, click here).
The day ended with a lively panel discussion, where our delegates voiced their concerns about entering the political scene. Can it damage a scientist’s reputation to engage in policy debates? According to Jonathan, “The real problem is when scientists don’t know they are being advocates: if you are trying to prove something, you stop questioning and stop being a scientist”. Why should PhD students bother at all, with pressures from their supervisors to finish their thesis? Rebecca pointed out that supervisors themselves need to show that their labs are involved in public and policy engagement for grant applications. Stevie noted that “If you aim to stay in Academia, engaging now is good training for how you will use your impact in the future”. Even if we do try, how can we reach politicians who won’t accept science? In these cases, appealing to the public may be key: “If the wider public believe something strongly enough, MPs will respond” said Jonathan. Which just highlights how wide the policy arena stretches, meaning that anyone you reach can start to make ripples in the pond. Writing to MPs, taking part in a science festival, starting a blog – it all counts, so get started!