A week in Westminster - Daniel Burnham

07 December 2016

The Palace of Westminster

Image: The Palace of Westminster

Daniel Burnham, a postdoc in Hasan Yardimci's group at the Francis Crick Institute, spent last week in Westminster with health minister Nicola Blackwood MP thanks to a pairing scheme run by the Royal Society. The scheme sees UK scientists shadow MPs and civil servants to learn about their work in policy making. This is his diary.

Firstly, wow, what a privileged experience. The parliamentarian pairing scheme from the Royal Society is a great opportunity for all scientists and I would recommend applying if you are even just slightly curious about policy and science. You will, without doubt, learn.

Day one

Our week started with a tour of the Palace of Westminster.

The tour placed in historical context how Parliament works. The Saxon kings met there, then the Normans, that's why Westminster is where it is. The seemingly obscure and esoteric rules and traditions are hard fought-for democratic rights.

We went on to have some talks in Portcullis House, including a lively one from a member of the House of Lords' Hansard staff (they keep records of everything said in Parliament) explaining how a Bill is passed through. A big public gripe is why isn't the House of Lords elected? Recent changes have brought hereditary peers to ~10%, however, a fully elected house would mean the House of Commons would lose their primacy. I now have a much firmer understanding of Parliamentary processes and I am reassured.

That evening we had passionate speeches from Jo Johnson MP, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Stephen Metcalfe MP, Madeleine Moon MP, and Professor Brian Cox. Hearing Professor Cox read Richard Feynman was a wonderful intersection of my interests!

One would assume if we all understood the detail of how Westminster works the world would be a better place. Perhaps we can teach the details in schools - it's such a crux of our society I think it would be beneficial.

Day two

I was paired with Nicola Blackwood MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health and Innovation, and MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. Despite her recent appointment, she still generously made time for me and allowed me to shadow her (where allowed). I can't share all the details as I don't want to betray any confidences as I'm not 100% sure what should be for public consumption. However, here are some takeaways.

The diary is hectic and organised to a tee. The first meeting was a briefing on a topic many would not be familiar with. Several things struck me:

1. Evidence was asked for where appropriate

2. Research articles were brought into discussion

3. Nicola assimilated information impressively quickly.

Eight hours later this information was used to answer questions in a parliamentary debate. You can read the details on Hansard.

In another meeting a concern raised by a Member of Parliament on behalf of a large community was carefully listened to. I don't pretend to know all the factors at play but I can say evidence was a consideration.

Appearances to support charities were efficiently made before running for a quick lunch and more information assimilation in preparation for a Lords Select Committee.

Day three

Another busy day for Nicola and her team. I shadowed during a meeting with a Chief Scientific Adviser in which more data was presented than most PhD vivas! Notably, the 60 or so slides, each with data on them, were printed off rather than projected as is the norm for us scientists.

Again, Nicola absorbed the information and it gave me a striking insight into the consideration of very long term problems and solutions. My unsupported belief of no long term forward planning due to the election cycle was shattered!

In the afternoon I attended the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee and witnessed the debate that gave rise to this tweet [from Sky's political editor].

Select Committees are open to the public and I highly recommend going to one to watch how the process works.

The same afternoon I got to role play as an MP on our own mock Select Committee. It was an interesting experience and gave us all further insight into how evidence is gathered for Parliament.

Day four

I rejoined the other scientists for sessions about the Government Office for Science, including a great talk from Stephen Bennett with lots of infographics on Foresight projects and how 'Data Safaris' can communicate evidence more efficiently.

Another fascinating talk was by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). They advise COBRA (the British government's emergency response committee) when they meet and so must be prepared. We also got to pretend to respond to a state emergency - it's fair to say we need some practice.

An unexpected benefit of the week was meeting scientists from diverse disciplines - psychiatry through to robotics. When you spend all day in your own little bubble it's easy to forget the rest of the scientific world out there!

Finally

I like to think I'm a reasonably intelligent person with an interest and curiosity in learning about politics but I was naive in my view of how Westminster works.

My biggest take away - evidence, evidence everywhere! Data, research articles, expertise! Wonderful!

How can scientists make a difference to policy? MPs and Select Committees want as much evidence as possible - from as diverse a group as possible. Indeed, one of their concerns is finding evidence from a breadth of sources. If we, scientists, want to make sure the correct evidence is acted upon then we must engage. Check out the www.parliament.uk website which provides a fairly open and transparent view of what is happening in Westminster. You can see which bills are passing through parliament (http://services.parliament.uk/bills/) and get in touch with Lords or MPs so they have evidence to hand. Or look at the open calls for evidence here to which you can submit.

Finally I'd like to thank Nicola, her staff in both the Parliamentary office and Private office; and Becky and Rachael from the Royal Society. Lovely people doing a difficult job, with great care and thought.

Daniel's Westminster diary was first published on his blog.