Science policy 101, or what I learnt after a week at Westminster

By Nathalie Pettorelli, Institute of Zoology

Houses of Parliament (Maurice/Flickr)
Houses of Parliament (Maurice/Flickr)

Doing ecological work with relevance to the policy world but frustrated to see how your work is overlooked by this community? Interested in getting more opportunities to interact with parliamentarians and feed scientific evidence into the legislative process, yet struggling to see how? This was me, a year ago; and this is why I applied to the Royal Society pairing scheme.

I’m a conservation biologist working at the Institute of Zoology, exploring ways to better understand and predict the impact of global environmental change on biodiversity using satellite data. The nature of my job is intrinsically linked to tackling research questions relevant to natural resource management, and the Institute’s mission is to produce research outputs relevant to society: how to best bring scientific evidence to decision makers was always going to be a recurrent question in my mind. Years of watching my colleagues dealing with the same issue told me that getting a foot in the system and expanding my network in that community are probably key to engaging policymakers engaged with the work I do; the scheme looked like a fantastic opportunity to do so.

The scheme runs annually, pairing around 30 research scientists with UK parliamentarians and civil servants. The pièce de résistance is the ‘Week in Westminster’, in which the scientists are invited to take part in workshops, hear from invited speakers and spend two days shadowing their partner. In my case, that also meant attending a session at the House of Commons; being able to meet with the chairs of the Environmental Audit and Science and Technology Committees and ask questions about how Committees work to their clerks; and having the opportunity to decipher how Parliament works by talking to the library and the Public Bill Office staff. The visit is then reciprocated, and your partner is invited to spend time with you at your institution. The whole point of this scheme is to give policymakers and research scientists an opportunity to experience each other’s worlds.

A lot of information was passed on to us during the week we had in Westminster, including a lot of good tips, which I thought were definitively worth sharing with people who may find themselves in the state I was in a year ago. This list is of course non exhaustive, and doesn’t include what I would have recommended before joining the scheme (such as keeping in touch with Wildlife & Countryside Link activities, reading the BES Policy Blog, contacting your BES Policy Team and making sure you join the BES Conservation Specialist Interest Group), but hopefully you’ll find it useful.

  1. Make sure you know how Parliament and the Government work. You need to get a good understanding of Parliament’s structure and how Bills are passed to identify the best ways to feed evidence into policy. It took me the whole week to understand the differences between the various types of Committees, who can propose a Bill, and what the Chamber Business Directorate And I can safely say that I’m probably far from being knowledgeable on the topic even after a week of harassing my partner with zillions of questions. There are various relevant resources online, see e.g. this by NERC or the “How Parliament works” section on the Parliament website. However, training opportunities on the topic are relatively scarce (one notable exception being the BES POST fellowship, open to PhD students) and I believe way more could be done to equip ecologists like me with the knowledge required to effectively interact with Parliamentarians.
  2. Get up-to-date with the latest news. I used to think that following the activities of some key MPs with interest in the environment and departments such as Defra was the way to keep up-to-date with what was going on in the policy world. After that week in Westminster, I realised that this was a bit simplistic. Much of the work of the House of Commons and the House of Lords takes place in Committees, and many are on social media. Select Committees are of particular interest, as their role is to check and report on areas ranging from the work of government departments to economic affairs. Inquiries are opened by Committees on a regular basis, and require experts (like us) to submit evidence; the results of these inquiries are public and many require a response from the government. Which ones do I follow on twitter after that week in Westminster? The Energy and Climate Change Committee; the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee; the Environmental Audit Committee; the Petitions Committee; and the Science and Technology Committee (from the Commons).
  3. Have a go at submitting written evidence. If you spot an inquiry that is of interest to you, consider submitting written evidence. Parliament has produced some pretty straightforward guidelines as how to do so, and submitting evidence is by far the most straightforward way to feed scientific evidence in the legislative process. As an aside, Committees publish most of the written evidence they receive on the internet, and these links can be used to demonstrate the impact of your work in REF assessments. Do bear in mind that material already published elsewhere (such as a peer reviewed paper) should not form the basis of a submission, but may be referred to within a submission, in which case it should be clearly referenced, preferably with a hyperlink.
  4. Talk to your MP. Before November last year, I would have never considered this to be a priority. I simply couldn’t see how such a move could be useful or even how I would start a conversation with my MP (how do you find their contact details? what do you say?). Turns out I misjudged the importance of this step, and how easy it is to do it. MPs, like yours, are constantly asked to take position on a myriad of issues which are mostly very far from their expertise. Their support system to acquire relevant knowledge can be pretty basic, especially so if he/she sits in the opposition, while the demands on their time are just gigantic. So, knowing someone that can help them understand critical issues is a real asset. On top of that, there is a political will to capitalise on science and technology as motors for our economy, which means that MPs are interested in promoting STEM careers among students in their constituencies. Many MPs are consequently quite interested in helping bring more scientists into schools. So how do you contact your MP? It’s pretty straightforward, you can find their details online. What to say when you contact them? Anything that opens up an opportunity for dialogue is a good one: maybe you are interested in getting his/her help with an educational project of yours? Maybe you wonder whether he/she would be interested in applying to the Royal Society pairing scheme with you? Opportunities for developing a relationship are numerous; just give it a go.
  5. Join a cross-parliamentary group. As well as taking part in formal parliamentary business, MPs may take part in informal work at Westminster, such as working with All-Party Parliamentary Groups. These groups are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament; they are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. These groups represent an easy way for scientists to network in the science-policy sphere while getting a grasp of the legislative process and the Dos and Don’ts of Parliament. Admittedly, there a lot of them, although their level of activity is highly variable. Having asked the BES Policy Team who they would recommend, it seems like the Biodiversity Group and the Agroecology for sustainable food and farming Group are particularly good first bets.

Find out more about how to apply to the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, and the BES Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme.