My Scottish parliamentary shadowing experience: juggling everything from beavers to toxic waste

Chloe Bellamy shares her experience of spending two days at the heart of the Scottish Government with Roseanna Cunningham MSP, as part of our 2016 parliamentary shadowing scheme.

My role as a spatial scientist at Forest Research focuses on measuring and mapping the benefits that woodlands provide to people and wildlife. I get great satisfaction from working with practitioners to develop research outputs which inform ‘real world’ decisions, such as where to focus resources to improve a species’ habitat suitability or to provide better opportunities for people to interact with nature. But when it comes to influencing overarching decisions, I have felt my understanding of what a policymaker does and how policies are developed lacks the depth to help me shape my scientific contribution. I have therefore been keeping an eye out for activities and events to help demystify the policymaking world and to improve my connections with it.

Once I started looking, I realised that there are opportunities aplenty in Scotland. For example, by taking an active role in running ESCom Scotland, I now regularly interact with members of Scottish Government, and the BES Scottish Policy Group has provided a welcoming network of ecologists interested in policy, alongside a programme of brilliant events, such as their enticing ‘Pie and a Pint’ nights and their 2016 policy training workshop in Edinburgh. On top of this, at the end of last year I gratefully accepted the first BES parliamentary shadowing placement with a Member of Scottish Parliament. I spent two days with the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, which provided a fascinating glimpse into Holyrood life and environmental policymaking in Scotland.

Two days with the Cabinet Secretary

I began my placement by meeting with the Cabinet Secretary’s private secretary, David, who quickly ran through the various meetings and activities scheduled for the next couple of days. I was set to shadow the Cabinet Secretary during two of the three days a week she usually spends at Holyrood dealing with parliamentary matters (the other two are typically set aside for her constituency, Perthshire South & Kinross-shire). As her ministerial title suggests, the Cabinet Secretary’s portfolio is very wide and covers everything from beavers to toxic waste, and this variety was reflected in her schedule. She happily let me tag along with her and David as we moved between meetings in Holyrood’s Tower Buildings and external events, and she allowed me to sit in on all but the most sensitive of meetings.

Both days started at events where the Cabinet Secretary was speaking to a group of government officials, businesses, scientists, NGOs, industry representatives and other stakeholders interested in a common theme. On day one, it was a Marine Strategy Forum event at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.  The meeting was discussing Scotland’s Marine Strategy and progress on the Scottish Statutory Marine Planning System, the first of its kind in the UK. The Cabinet Secretary addressed this forum for the first time since assuming her position, and took the opportunity to describe the breadth of her domain and her key portfolio ambitions, which included tackling climate change in an effort to meet Scotland’s 2009 Climate Act obligations. Over the previous few weeks she and her team had been working intensively on a new Climate Change Plan, integrating ‘ambitious new 2020 targets’ to reduce Scotland’s emissions by more than 50%. On the second day of my placement, the Cabinet Secretary opened an event to consult the climate change community on the Plan before wider release. Now a draft has been published, the Committee on Climate Change will review the Plan and make recommendations based on the best available scientific and other evidence. Following this process, a new Climate Change Bill will be introduced during this parliament.

I was also able to sit in on the Cabinet Secretary’s first meeting with shadow Chair of the Crown Estate Scotland, Amanda Bryan, to discuss the difficult task of handing over this huge area of largely rural land into community ownership (detailed in this Telegraph article). I attended portfolio strategy and policy planning meetings, First Minister’s Questions to hear Nicola Sturgeon addressing a range of matters from educational performance to relations with the new US president, a fisheries debate led by Fergus Ewing (Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity), and a timetabling meeting to respond to a long list of requests for the Cabinet Secretary’s time.

Policy planning in an uncertain world

Alongside climate change, Brexit was another focus for political attention and I wasn’t surprised to hear it crop up frequently throughout my placement. The uncertainty caused by the unknown consequences of triggering Article 50 was pervasive and was clearly a matter of concern for the Cabinet Secretary and her team as they discussed progress, budgets and plans at a meeting on the second day. Despite this, there appeared to be an overall feeling of ‘getting on with the job’ and the need to make progress with the long list of policy areas falling under the ministerial portfolio, whilst reserving some energy into considering a future out of the EU.

Six months into her role, the Cabinet Secretary’s focus was on drilling down into the detail of her priority goals and identifying the required evidence and actions. I witnessed this aspect of policy planning first-hand in a meeting with the Natural Resources and Natural Heritage Policy Team, during which they outlined their progress on evidence and recommendations, using a ‘red-amber-green’ system to stress any urgent or problematic targets. This team is developing rural policy designed to meet EU greening obligations, whilst addressing more local Scottish needs. They appeared to be looking to other countries for inspiration and, for example, were hoping to fund research into the potential efficacy and suitability of French agroecology schemes.

The science-policy interface

Despite this busy schedule (carefully planned to the minute by her administrative team), I did snatch an opportunity for a brief one-to-one chat with the Cabinet Secretary about the role of science in policy – on a walk between meetings! She highlighted some issues, such as mismatches between science and policy timetables, echoing Chris Tyler’s Guardian article on the nature of this interface. She explained that the Government has to continually develop and update environmental policy and laws under tight time constraints. Even if more research is required to better understand a complex issue, policy makers have to rely on the most robust evidence available at that time to inform decisions. Scientists must therefore be prepared to respond quickly to calls for information with a summary of their research findings, the potential implications for policy, and identification of any associated uncertainty. These need to be accessible and succinct, not only so busy policymakers can quickly digest them, but also so that they can easily be translated to the public.

The job of a Cabinet Secretary – a difficult juggling act

The Cabinet Secretary also pointed out that scientific information is not used in isolation for policy development, and that a multitude of other political, economic and social factors must be considered collectively. In fact, over my two day placement, science was rarely directly mentioned. It seemed to me that, although scientific evidence forms the basis of many environmental policies being developed (and hopefully increasingly so), perhaps unsurprisingly it isn’t the focus at this high level. The job of a Cabinet Secretary appears to be a difficult juggling act, balancing a complex and fluid web of interrelated and sometimes competing objectives in an effort to meet political aims and statutory obligations, often with tight time scales and limited resources.

Further pieces of the policymaking puzzle

The placement provided me with a fascinating glimpse into the later stages of policymaking. In addition, the Cabinet Secretary’s team have kindly offered to broaden my experience through another placement, this time with an environmental policy team in Scottish Government. I am grateful to the BES and the Cabinet Secretary for this brilliant opportunity, and I am looking forward to finding more pieces of the policymaking puzzle this year and beyond!

Three key lessons learnt

1. Sum up findings for policy. As well as aiming to publish peer reviewed papers, make it common practice to summarise your findings as easily digested bullet points throughout the course of a project, and as a ministerial brief at the end of a project. You can find some useful tips here.


2. Get clued up and join in. Parliamentary matters are much more transparent and documented than I had previously realised. Anyone can get a pass to watch Ministers’ Questions at Holyrood (or Westminster) or find transcripts and footage of them on the internet. Also, look into joining science-policy networks, such as ESCom Scotland or the BES Scottish Policy Group.


3. Don’t be intimidated. I found that Holyrood was a much more formal environment than I’m used to working in. To be able to engage policy makers about your science confidently face-to-face, it is important to feel calm and comfortable, so take opportunities to mix with them whenever possible (see above!).

Chloe Bellamy was one of the participants in our 2016 Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme, which will be repeated in 2017. Find out more about the opportunities available.