How can early career researchers help shape science policy?

04 April, 2019

How can early career researchers help shape science policy?

How can early career researchers help shape science policy?

Last year, I had the privilege of attending Science Policy: Improving the uptake of research into UK policy. This was a two-day conference with fascinating talks, lots of interaction and group activities. I was interested to hear more about science policy; I was coming to the end of my PhD and was about to embark on a research communication role in the charity sector. I was also ashamed of my ignorance surrounding the UK political system and how science policies are formed.

Sarion Bowers, Research Policy Lead for the Wellcome Sanger Institute, opened the day and immediately she grabbed our attention, thinking about “experts”, who are the people that influence decision-making? I was shocked to see that a google image search of the word “expert” revealed a striking problem in diversity: 58 images were gender neutral, 49 images of men, 13 images of women and 0 black and ethnic minority images.

There were more surprises with a case study on science policy surrounding mitochondrial donation. The process from development of the science, through the licensing laws and all the way to allowing the science to be used in the clinic took around 18 years.

Sarion believes “science and technology is advancing too fast for legislation to keep up”.

The next session was from Peter Border from the Parliament Office of Science and Technology (POST). This gave us an insight into how policy makers seek information and how it is provided in the form of succinct briefings. These briefings are purely evidence based with balanced information that is ultimately peer reviewed.

POST provide 3-month internships for PhD students to gain experience writing these briefings for members of parliament.

Another way that policy makers discuss and gather evidence on particular subjects is through select committees. These committees exist in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The science and technology committee meet and discuss topics of their choice, and call for evidence from experts to then compile a report and recommend actions to parliament. In order for early career researchers to have influence and have the skills to provide evidence to shape policy it is vital that there are supportive networks, organisations such as The Wellcome Trust and societies such as the Royal Society and Microbiology Society offer this support.

One of my highlights was meeting some members of parliament. The course was about the process of science policy not about specific political views:

  • Heidi Allen MP (Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire)
  • Nicola Blackwood  (Former Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, former Junior Health Minister, Former chair of the science and tech select committee)
  • Vicky Ford MP (Conservative MP for Chelmsford)

It was interesting to hear first-hand how MPs gather their evidence to influence parliament. The discussion was about how researchers can successfully get our evidence and research interest communicated to MPs. The kind of evidence MPs want is succinct timely and contextual. It is useful to think about which MP has an interest in the topic you want to campaign about and will therefore champion your research or topic of interest.

As part of this discussion, we were asked to raise our hands if we were involved with Brexit campaigning before the referendum; none of us had been actively involved in campaigning. Should we have been more vocal in our opinions and giving evidence surrounding Brexit and science?

A common theme was the need to build public trust again in experts and evidence-based politics; we are currently in an environment of fake news and non-evidence-based campaigning. The Royal Society’s motto: “take no one’s word for it”, everything should be backed with the facts and figures.  But it is also essential that we remember policy making needs to be democratic. Therefore, research communication and education plays a role in enabling non-scientists to discuss scientific evidence to form their own opinions and advocate for science policy.

In the Conservative election manifesto it has been suggested research and development should have increased public and private spending to 2.4% of the GDP by 2027 and the spending review early next year will see this become a reality or not. We were given the chance to think about how we would put a document together to influence the government to invest more in research. This put us in the shoes of decision makers and got us thinking about how we would gather evidence and what facts and figures have the most weight.

After a careers session offering advice for those of us wanting to seek professional roles in science policy, the day was concluded by Ben Bleasdale Policy Advisor for the Wellcome Trust. We left with a vow to spread what we had learnt and to be united to have the greatest voice to influence science policy.

Recommended reading and further information:

Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world - and why things are better than you think - Hans Rosling et al

The Honest Broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics - Roger Pielke