Insight into science communication for policy making

By Hannah Sutcliffe, University of Edinburgh, UK

hannah-sutcliffeWhen the chance to apply for a policy internship at the UK Parliament arose, I jumped at the opportunity to find out more about how scientific evidence is used by policy makers. As a molecular biologist, working in basic research, I have often wondered how much scientific research really impacts life outside the lab. I eagerly read about other PhD students’ experiences of spending three months working in Parliament, writing POSTnotes for MPs to inform them on different scientific issues.

Working for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) sounded great. But I hadn’t realised that POST is just one of the ways that MPs interact with science. I was given the opportunity to work instead within the House of Commons Library, who provide impartial information to help MPs, whether it’s about a bill currently going through Parliament, for a debate, or to help them help their constituents.

The Library provides information to MPs in three different ways: (1) responding to individual enquiries, (2) debate packs, and (3) briefing papers.

(1) I worked on several enquiries from MPs during my placement. MPs can contact the library for balanced, impartial information about a topic on a confidential basis, to support them in their roles. While I was mainly focussing on topics around health, I sometimes ended up answering on any topic you can imagine coming under the umbrella of “Science and Environment”. I relished the variety of working on a selection of diverse topics, especially having spent the last two and a half years working on my PhD! Unsurprisingly, there were no enquiries asking about DNA and pipettes, but despite my lack of expertise in some of the subjects I was working on, I found that my PhD research skills stood me in good stead to find the information I needed. Summarising the information concisely for a non-scientific audience was the challenging part. I frequently found myself needing to alter my responses to remove over-scientific language and excessive amounts of information. MPs don’t have time to read about that extra little thing you learned and thought was interesting, especially when it is not strictly relevant to their enquiry!

(2) Debate packs are published for most non-legislative debates. I didn’t contribute to one of these during my placement, but they contain background about the topic of the debate, and information about media coverage, relevant press releases, and recent government statements on the topic.

(3) The library regularly publishes briefing papers to keep MPs informed on relevant topics. Alongside answering enquiries, I also worked on a Briefing Paper about Drug Misuse and Treatment approaches. While the previous Government was to study a new drug strategy, the evidence around different approaches and the policy surrounding these was an important thing for MPs to be aware of. Since the snap election was called, we don’t know if or when a new drug strategy will be published, but hopefully my briefing paper will be useful regardless!

In addition to POST and the Commons Library, MPs also look at scientific evidence through select committee inquiries. Select committees are groups of MPs who study particular issues and scrutinise Government action, and make recommendations to policy makers. Behind the scenes is a team including research specialists working to help the committee of MPs to do this. Alongside my work for the library, I also had the chance to help with the Health and Education Select Committees in their inquiry into Young People’s Mental Health and Education. While the inquiry was called short by the snap election, it is hoped that some of the committee’s findings will be taken into consideration by the new Government, and may be looked into again by the new Select Committees.

The UK Parliament has an important job in scrutinising the Government, and needs to be well informed to do so. It was a privilege to contribute to this, and I’d highly recommend the RCUK policy internship scheme to any PhD student (there are several different funding schemes if you’re not RCUK funded) who wants to see evidence being used to create and scrutinise public policy. The scheme places PhD students and early career researchers within both the House of Commons and House of Lords Libraries, working with the select committees, and in POST. This experience has given me a better idea of how to communicate my own research to diverse audiences, has made me better aware of how scientific evidence is used by our elected officials, and even has me considering a career in policy!

POSTnotes and Commons/Lords Library Briefing Papers and Debate Packs can be found on the UK Parliament website. 

The House of Commons Library and the Science and Environment Section of the House of Commons Library can be found on Twitter at @commonslibrary and @commonsSES, respectively. 

Hannah Sutcliffe was one of the Biochemical Society’s representatives at the Voice of the Future 2017 event at the Houses of Parliament. This event presents a unique opportunity to students and early career researchers to ask science policy questions of key Ministers and MPs. More information about this event is available on the Royal Society of Biology’s website and applications for the next round will open in January 2018.

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