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A Week in Westminster with the Royal Society

Dr Andreas Kappes discusses his week in Westminster and lessons for scientists on impacting policy


On a December Monday morning, not too long before Christmas, a diverse group of scientists entered the Great Hall of Westminster, on invitation of the Royal Society.

Each of them were invited to participate in the 17th Royal Society Pairing Scheme, which pairs scientists with policymakers – MPs or civil servants – to give each a chance to experience the realm of the other. This year’s cohort involved myself and Dr Kyriaki Giorgakoudi from City, University of London.

I was paired with Wendy Middleton, Head of Office to the Chief Scientific Adviser (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). For me, the week comprised a series of minor and major revelations; revelations on how the government works, but more importantly, revelations on how scientists can impact policy making and further evidence-based policies.

Powered by the enthusiasm and commitment of Becky Purvis and Joe Edwards from the Royal Society, we had a tour de force through all aspects of the intersection of science and policy, from meeting the Speaker of the House to participating in a Mock Select Committee. Talks, receptions, presentations, and personal meetings in between. Exhausting and enlightening at the same time.

Whether or not you want to work with policymakers, the pairing scheme is a tremendous experience that I recommend to any scientist. I am grateful to somehow have been picked, to have been paired with an inspiring and generous policymaker in Wendy Middleton, and to the Royal Society for organising the scheme. My humble attempt to give something back are the lessons summarised below, that I feel might be useful for other scientists.

Impacting Policy is Personal

Influencing policy involves talking to the people that make the decisions. But to whom should scientists talk?

Maybe I am rather ignorant, but for me, one of the biggest insights of the week was to see that government is split between Westminster and Whitehall. In Westminster, the Government (capitalised G) consists of the Prime Minister, MPs and other ministers. This is a Government dominated by politics, party affiliations, and opinion polls. But in Whitehall there is also a government (with a small g) made up of civil servants that tries to shape a policy into its best possible form, often over years. That is the government you should seek out as a scientist. Attaching oneself as a scientist to a party or a specific MP seems to me to be the wrong choice that might undermine your credibility or ability to influence a policy once the political winds of change turn Government around.

But building a relationship with civil servants yourself or via dedicated organisations such as the Royal Society seems to me to be the right choice. The civil servants I met were often scientists themselves, it was easy to find a common language, and they were dedicated and committed to evidence-based policy making. After the week, I felt so much more calm and confident about the British government, knowing that underneath the often silly politics we know from the news, there a thousands of civil servants who serve the people with passion and dedication. That lesson alone made the week worthwhile for me. So get some civil servants into your life.

Influencing Policy Is Great for Finding Meaning in Your Work

Do not underestimate how interesting your research is. In my regular work life, I talk to students and colleagues who mostly know my research and are rarely surprised by the insights my area of interest has to offer. Meeting civil servants and other scientists made me remember why my field (psychology) is interesting.

Take, for instance, my conversation with Marina Pais, plant biologist at the University of East Anglia. She looks at ways to improve crops via genetic modification but faces huge obstacles in her research because of how people react to the uncertainty around the long term consequences of modifying the genetic code of plants. I realised that I had a lot to say about why this might be the case and how my research might help to explain the bias against GMOs in Europe. Helping to overcome these obstacles might have far reaching implications, especially for developing countries around the world. Maybe I can actually make a bit of a difference here?

What are the obstacles?

Policy making is messy and far from perfect, something I also learned during my week at Westminster. And there are obstacles specific to scientists that you should be aware of (beyond a lack of time). As scientists, we are trained to be specialists – researching specific aspects in a specific area, but policy needs generalists. In my case, for instance, a policy maker interested in understanding how people are affected by uncertainty wants to know the mainstream, state of the art, overview not just what is going on in my little research corner. And we scientists always look forward - what is not yet known, where is more research needed - while policy looks backward, asking what we know with high certainty, insights that might be decades old. Policy making needs a shift of attention from the scientist.

Another obstacle might be that this probably will not help your career, at least directly. Impact case studies for the REF are interested in policy impact, but only if it is based on your original research. But as detailed above, such research might be not general enough or to cutting-edge to make it into the policy. And self-promotion is not the best way to promote trust with policy makers, and should not be your aim when trying to steer policy. Evidence-based not ego-based is what policy needs.

Interested in the Pairing Scheme?

If you are reading this line, if you made it through almost a 1000 words on policy, you might truly be interested in policy making and the Pairing Scheme. If so, please contact me, I am happy to answer questions, provide useful links or help with the application for the next Royal Society Pairing Scheme.

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