The Royal Society Pairing Scheme: My Week in Westminster

I was delighted to be selected to take part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme. The scheme offers the opportunity for research scientists and UK parliamentarians and civil servants to learn about each other’s’ world.  Additionally, as part of the scheme the Royal Society hosts a week of events that offer a unique insight into how science is used in Westminster. I took part in the scheme along with two other scientists from the University of Bath; Professor Jonathan Davies from Mathematics and Dr Vimal Dhokia from Mechanical Engineering.

As a scientist and Health Psychologist I am interested in how scientific evidence is used by policy makers to inform strategy and policy development related to health. In particular, my research examines the cognitive and behavioural effects of alcohol and tobacco use and I am therefore interested in how this research is used by parliamentarians and civil servants to make policy decisions related to alcohol and tobacco. For example, how is evidence used in policy making surrounding plain packaging of cigarettes and minimum unit pricing of alcohol? To this end, I was thrilled to be paired with the Head of the Drugs and Alcohol Team at the Drug and Alcohol Unit in the Home Office.

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Ready for a week of science policy at the Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament

 

Science Policy            

In the sessions and events hosted by the Royal Society I had the opportunity to tour the Palace of Westminster and attend a reception, with talks from science minister Jo Johnson MP, President of the Royal Society; Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Professor of Public Engagement at the Royal Society; Professor Brian Cox and Stephen Metcalfe MP; Chair of the Commons Science and Technology. It was incredibly inspiring to hear such influential individuals from the worlds of science and politics speak with such passion on the role of science in policy making.

 

 

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Meeting Professor Brian Cox, Professor of Public Engagement, The Royal Society

 

The Royal Society also organised extremely insightful sessions including talks from the House of Parliament Outreach Service, who described how parliament works in terms of passing of bills, lobbying etc. I also spent a morning at the Government Office for Science, learning how the office works, uses foresight projects and how science is used to responds to emergencies. A particularly informative event was a mock select committee on science and technology. During this session I had the chance to observe the parliamentary process of a select committee, which has helped improve my understanding of how specialist witnesses are selected, the benefits and weaknesses of select committees and how the evidence gathered at these committees informs policy making.

 

Drug and Alcohol Policy

During my time at the Home Office the Drug and Alcohol Unit prepared a full and very interesting programme of meetings with individuals involved in various aspects of drug and alcohol policy making.  I was exceptionally impressed by the use of evidence in the unit as a central lens in shaping policy alongside delivery and politics. Prior to the scheme I had been quite naïve in assuming that science was the only force or most important force driving policy decisions, however my time at the unit really helped my understanding and appreciation of the different stakeholders involved in policy making.

During my pairing I had individual meetings with key players within the Drug and Alcohol Unit and further afield in the Home Office, including the Head of Drug and Alcohol Team, the Head of the Drug Strategy Team and the Home Office Chief Scientific Advisor. These meetings were a great opportunity to find out how the Drug and Alcohol Unit and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs use research evidence to make policy-related decisions. It was particularly interesting to hear about the role of science in policy making in relation to topical issues in the field of drugs and alcohol e.g. the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, minimum unit pricing of alcohol, alcohol availability and licensing. I was also attended very interesting meetings at Public Health England and the Department of Health that enabled me to understand how the Home Office works with other departments to consult on factors influencing policy making; including research evidence.

Conclusions

I could not have asked for a better or richer insight into policy making. The combination of the events hosted by the Royal Society and the experience of being placed at the Drug and Alcohol Unit at the Home Office provided me with an invaluable opportunity and a new found appreciation of how science is used by policy makers in general and in my specific research field. I am looking forward to the reciprocal visit from the civil servant I was paired with at the Home Office. I am hope that I can offer insight into how scientific research is designed, conducted and disseminated. The scheme has undoubtedly improved my knowledge of the “wider political stage” on which my research is considered in policy making. Taking part in the scheme has also helped me understand how I as a scientist can produce evidence in a way that is optimal and accessible to policy makers. I would have no hesitation in recommending the Royal Society Pairing Scheme to any scientists with a desire to learn more about how science and their research is used by parliamentarians and civil servants.

 

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