BES POST Fellowship: first reflections

This post is by Rory O’Connor, who is currently carrying out a 3 month BES Fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Rory is a final year PhD student at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. His research assesses the ecology and behaviour of two native species of butterfly.

A month and a half ago I stepped bleary eyed and pallid out of the lab and into the world of Westminster, to start my 3 month fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) under the sponsorship of the BES.  Suddenly (it seems) I’m over half way through. It has been an enlightening, exciting and busy experience and here I shall share with you a bit of what I’ve done and learnt so far.

POST’s remit is to provide balanced and unbiased analysis of policy issues related to science and technology to Parliament, and the main method of doing this is through POSTnotes. These are 4 sides of A4 that summarise a particular subject, which are send out to parliamentarians and are available to anyone else who wants to read them. My job while here is to produce a POSTnote on the subject of Insect Pollinator Declines. POST have already produced a note on Insect Pollination in 2010, but things have moved on apace since then so I’ve been charged with providing an update. It is no coincidence that I’m writing on this topic when pollinators, particularly bees, have recently landed squarely on top of the political agenda. This is namely because of some recent studies showing negative impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees and bumble bees, and the EU’s subsequent decision to place a two year moratorium on three neonicotinoids.  What better time to update parliamentarians on the issues surrounding pollinator declines!

My first couple of weeks were spent reading up on the science and policy issues that surround pollinator declines (as well as enjoying the experience of having access to the Palace of Westminster). This initially involved a lot searching for scientific papers, but there are also a lot of policy and parliamentary documents out there. For instance, the week before I arrived, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee published the report of its recent inquiry into Pollinators and Pesticides. If you’ve never read one of these documents before it is worth a look as it gives a great insight into what these committees do and how they collect their evidence.

So as I filled my brain with useful information on all things pollinators I made a list of people I’d like to talk to; MPs who might have an interest, scientists about their work, NGOs on their position, and stakeholders such as the farmers, bee keepers and food suppliers. A POSTnote is not just a literature review, a fundamental part of it is conducting interviews with experts and stakeholders to get their perspectives and interpretations of the issue. It’s an efficient way to get an idea of the most important issues and different stances than simply reading around. It has also been for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work at POST so far. When else would you get an opportunity to ask if you can chat to field leading scientists and important organisations about what they do? It’s been brilliant, and I can’t thank the people who I’ve spoken to enough for being so generous with their time (and putting up with some of my daft questions!).

So what have I learnt so far? Firstly, to use my outlook calendar properly! Gone are the days when my week could simply be remembered or made up as I went along. Second, pollinator declines is a really important and complex issue, and the focus of lots of great science. Thirdly, policy is complicated. “No proverbial Poirot” you might say, but this really has hit home since I joined POST. The science really is just one part of it, and the voices of scientists are just one group among many that policy makers have to listen to. I’ve read a lot and spoken to a lot of people, with different perspectives and agendas, that don’t necessarily match up. And to top it off even scientists disagree sometimes. The debate around pesticides in particular has been a lesson for me on how complicated these things can get. Policy makers have to take the muddle of facts and opinions (often conflicting) that are thrown at them on a given subject and decide what is the best thing to do and the best way to do it. Hopefully my POSTnote will be a tool which makes their job that little bit easier.

So now, my mind abuzz with all this information, I’m now embarking on the challenge of putting it all together in a balanced and impartial way that will help parliamentarians understand the subject.