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01/08/2014

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The Royal Society MP Pairing Scheme

John Pethica, David Kavanagh and Chi Onwurah explain the rationale and benefits of the latest round.

Building bridges

Professor John Pethica FRS, Vice-President of the Royal Society, on linking science and politics.

MPs, many of whom have no background in science, often find it challenging to understand science and technology issues fully, and their potential impact on society.  Similarly, many scientists wish to keep abreast of policy developments and to understand the pressures of the parliamentary process in the development of science policy and regulation, but find it difficult to access the relevant individuals and organisations.

Professor John Pethica FRS, Vice-President of the Royal Society, on linking science and politics.

MPs, many of whom have no background in science, often find it challenging to understand science and technology issues fully, and their potential impact on society.  Similarly, many scientists wish to keep abreast of policy developments and to understand the pressures of the parliamentary process in the development of science policy and regulation, but find it difficult to access the relevant individuals and organisations.

With this in mind, and following the challenges of the BSE crisis, the Royal Society set up the MP Pairing scheme in 2001 with funding from the Kohn Foundation.  The scheme enables scientists and MPs to shadow each other in each other’s workplace, focussing on the need to build bridges between science and politics in a climate of transparency to ensure mutual understanding.

Since 2001, we have organised more than 200 MP-scientist pairs and in 2009 we expanded the scheme in order to pair civil servants with scientists, thus embedding science even more deeply into Whitehall.

Forging links

The scheme also helps with decision making on science issues. It helps MPs to forge direct links with networks of practising research scientists in their own constituencies, forming long-lasting partnerships and opportunities for both giving and receiving advice.

Said John Denham MP: ‘My day at the University of Southampton’s School of Chemistry was enormously useful, particularly in understanding some of the complex issues which affect the careers of research scientists and the funding of fundamental research.’

Assessing what has been accomplished by the scheme can be challenging to quantify, but all participants have been very positive in their feedback and many scientists have remained involved in the parliamentary process.

Continuing involvement

For example, astrophysicist Dr Joanne Baker, who was paired with Dr Evan Harris MP, has worked on two projects for Parliament, contributing to Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) notes for a project on horizon scanning and a study of Parliamentary questions on science topics.  Similarly, several MPs have chosen to continue their relationship with the Royal Society and participate in the pairing scheme more than once. 

We are also pleased that the model has attracted a great deal of interest internationally, and the Académie des Sciences in France has established a scheme modelled on the Society’s.  We look forward to many more years of successful pairings and establishing even greater understanding between scientists and policy-makers.

Into the laboratory

Chi Onwurah MP, Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central and shadow Cabinet Office minister, realises an ambition.

When I heard of the Royal Society Pairing scheme I was keen to take part. As an MP with a science background – I worked as a professional engineer for 23 years – I am well aware of the lack of scientific understanding in Parliament and indeed the general public. I know only too well that this can translate into mistrust, fear and, as a consequence, bad policy. 

Chi Onwurah MP, Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central and shadow Cabinet Office minister, realises an ambition.

When I heard of the Royal Society Pairing scheme I was keen to take part. As an MP with a science background – I worked as a professional engineer for 23 years – I am well aware of the lack of scientific understanding in Parliament and indeed the general public. I know only too well that this can translate into mistrust, fear and, as a consequence, bad policy. 

I also feel that scientists and engineers could do more to raise the general level of debate. Too many seem to think their work should speak for itself, or that they are above the messy practices of politics. But the fact is that our economy is increasingly dependent on science and technology and many of the great challenges we face as a society – such as taking care of an ageing population – have science at their heart.

Given that, it is up to those who know their science to add their voices to the debate.

Kidney disease

When it was my turn to shadow Dr David Kavanagh at the University of Newcastle, I found myself back in a lab for the first time since I graduated from Imperial. I immediately realised a personal ambition – a pristine white lab coat with my name on it!  David had structured the day so that I was able to see examples of the different stages in his team’s work to develop a treatment for the severe kidney disease called atypical haemolytic uraemic syndrome, and understand some of the science behind it.

It illustrated to me the fundamentals of the scientific method in combining theoretical and experimental research, as well as the long timeframe, so different from the political cycle.  That is why the last government put in place a long term funding framework for science, which this government then chose to abolish.

Lack of understanding

Watching David’s team (and feeding yeast, Pichia Pastoris, to generate recombinant proteins myself), I thought of a recent Parliamentary debate on the badger cull in which Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State at Defra, likened scientific research for a vaccine to that of Sisyphus – the character from Greek mythology who was punished by being made to roll a rock up a hill only to watch it roll down again forever.  Defra is a science-based department, yet this showed a complete lack of understanding of the scientific method.

It is up to both politicians like myself and scientists like David to make sure that science is better understood and valued.

Into Parliament

Drama and dialogue for Dr David Kavanagh, Wellcome Trust intermediate clinical fellow at Newcastle University and Consultant Nephrologist at the Freeman Hospital.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a keen interest in politics, and I’ve been intrigued about how the government seeks the best scientific advice for policy making and at times of crisis. With scientific advances disseminated around the globe almost instantaneously via Twitter and rolling news channels, governments are increasingly pressurized to give real-time comment. Few MP have a science background, and the pace of scientific advance further increases their dependence on the scientific community for guidance.

Drama and dialogue for Dr David Kavanagh, Wellcome Trust intermediate clinical fellow at Newcastle University and Consultant Nephrologist at the Freeman Hospital.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a keen interest in politics, and I’ve been intrigued about how the government seeks the best scientific advice for policy making and at times of crisis. With scientific advances disseminated around the globe almost instantaneously via Twitter and rolling news channels, governments are increasingly pressurized to give real-time comment. Few MP have a science background, and the pace of scientific advance further increases their dependence on the scientific community for guidance.

Despite my interest, nothing in my training as a scientist or a clinician had prepared me to engage in the political process. The Royal Society Pairing Scheme provides a mechanism to begin.

Playing at crisis

Our ‘Week in Westminster’ began with a series of seminars on the mechanisms of government by the Hansard Society. Subsequent lectures by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the Commons Science and Technology Committee and the Lords Science and Technology Select Committee focussed specifically on the role of science in government.

Then, it was our turn to work, ‘playing’ Government Chief Scientific Adviser. We were called to COBRA, and told that an earthquake and Tsunami had struck Japan. Troubling reports of explosions at a nuclear power station were being received. There were 300,000 UK nationals in the region. What should we do?

Our re-enactment of the UK’s scientific response to the Fukushima crisis highlighted to us the need for rapid and considered scientific advice. Reviewing the contemporaneous scientific advice given, I was relieved and, I have to admit, slightly surprised that scientific evidence was the predominant basis for the political response to the crisis.

Virtue of brevity

It was then off to meet my host, Chi Onwurah, then Shadow Minister for Innovation, Science and Digital Infrastructure. With a science and engineering background, Chi is something of a rarity amongst MPs. In the next few days, a series of meetings and round tables with universities, health charities and businesses revealed the breadth and scope of her portfolio. With such demands on an MP’s time, ‘Brevity is the sister of talent’.

In this scheme I found politicians reaching out to harness the world-leading science this country produces. It provided me with an understanding of the mechanisms through which the scientific community can influence policy. I hope this knowledge will provide the basis for an ongoing dialogue with government throughout my career.

Professor John Pethica FRS
Professor John Pethica FRS, Vice-President of the Royal Society, on linking science and politics.
Chi Onwurah MP
Chi Onwurah MP is Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central and a shadow Cabinet Office minister.
Dr David Kavanagh
Dr David Kavanagh is Wellcome Trust intermediate clinical fellow at Newcastle University and Consultant Nephrologist at the Freeman Hospital
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