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My week in Westminster - Part 1

Palace of Westminster
Monday 2 December 2013
36 scientists were up bright and early in London for a tour around the Palace of Westminster as part of the Royal Society science and parliament pairing scheme.  We got to visit both Chambers as well as learning about the history of the UK parliament and the interactions between the Monarch, House of Lords and House of Commons. Did you know that to reserve a seat in the House of Commons the MP has to personally place a hand-written green card in a slot above their seat?!

After coffee and biscuits in Portcullis House we were introduced to the scheme and heard from previous participants about their experiences and the forging of relationships between scientists and MPs/civil servants. Discussion ensued about the the lack of scientists in Parliament (apparently not as bas as we thought!), as well as the intricacies of the House of Lords such as there being no cap currently on the number of peers invited to join!

An hour later having been filled up on what was a very nice lunch we learnt about the different scientific committees in Parliament (note not Government, these are very separate things!) including being introduced to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology by the Director Dr Chris Tyler,  The House of Lords Science and Technology committee by Lord Robert Winston, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (Victoria Charlton), Parliamentary & Scientific Committee by Professor Alan Malcom, and the House of Commons Library.  I never knew there were so many committees but they are integral to the policy making process by scrutinising parliament and using evidenced based research as much as possible - something we scientists are very keen on!

Tuesday 3 December 2013
So the week continues in Westminster today with our location for talks being in Westminster Hall.  After passing through security we settled in for a day of talks concerned with science and Government.  The day began with an informative presentation by Jill Rutter (from the Institute of Government) on science at Whitehall. The largest proportion of permanent secretaries in charge of departments come from Economics backgrounds (26%) with only 11% from maths and far few from science effectively reflecting a 'Science Free Zone'.  She offered insights such as the fact scientists need to explain scientific evidence but understand that it is politicians who make the decisions and therefore need to be clear about the role.

David Mackay
Following Jill we had an entertaining talk by David McKay, the Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department for Environment and Climate Change who succinctly outlined the various conflicts that can exist between objectives of the Department e.g. an increase in renewable energy is is needed but this could conflict with the need to maintain energy security.  He was also keen to provide us with back of the envelope calculations to make us think about the problems policy makers can face: e.g an average road of cars fuelled by biofuel would require an  ~8km verge on which to grow this source of energy! (making assumptions about speed, engine efficiency etc).

We finished a packed morning with a talk by Oliver Grant from the Horizon Scanning Centre who examine longer-term strategy beyond the length of fixed term Parliaments and how policy might adapt/change.

The afternoon began with Chris Fleming from the Government Office of Science providing the top ten tips for academics which included building relationships with policy makers in Government, try to keep in mind the differences between lobbying and giving advice and hold realistic expectations!

This was followed by an interactive session on Science supporting UK Emergency Response (SAGE) and its interaction with COBR.  We formed several small groups and were asked to imagine that we were giving advice as members of SAGE to COBR on two scenarios involving sub-zero temperatures and snow in the UK and the escape of a Flu virus from Myanmar!

The afternoon was finished by a talk from Alexandra Saxon at the RCUK which resulted in a very heated debate about funding science and impact, and a proposal by Dr Natalia Lawrence on producing a UK Evidence Information Service (effectively a database of science specialist who could be called on to give evidence).

After so many interesting talks we were already for a well-deserved drink at Walkers of Whitehall!

Tomorrow the shadowing begins!
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This blog has been written by Dr Emma J Stone, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.
Emma is visiting civil servant Alan Pitt, secretary to the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, at the House of Commons for a ‘Week in Westminster’ commencing Monday 2 December as part of a unique pairing scheme run by the Royal Society.  Read more.

Dr Emma J Stone

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