an ecologist in parliament – my time as a BES POST Fellow

 

I recently spent 4 months working as a science advisor in the Houses of Parliament. A brilliant experience with the delights of London making a refreshing change to Aberdeen!

I got this opportunity thanks to the British Ecological Society’s POST Fellowship, which allows 2nd and 3rd year ecology PhD students to work in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

I’ve written a piece for the BES Bulletin describing my time in Parliament and encouraging others to apply. But it won’t be published till June, and as the applications for the 2014 fellowship close in May, I thought I’d post it here so this year’s potential applicants can get a flavour of what they might be in for…

 

“…the thing is, in the chamber, we don’t often debate issues to which science is relevant…” a quote from an anonymous MP…

While sat in the MP in question’s office, deep within the Palace of Westminster, I was confidently assured of the above. The implication being, while it’s nice to hear the views of scientists every now and again, it’s really not that relevant to the work of an MP!

Few quotes from my time in Parliament better illustrate the gap that exists between scientists and parliamentarians – that is, MPs and Peers. But the quote also demonstrates one of the many fascinating and unique opportunities the BES POST Fellowship scheme can provide – the somewhat surreal chance to have a one on one chat with a politician about the role of science in society.

The scheme, open to 2nd and 3rd year ecology PhD students who are also BES members, allows you to spend 3 months on the front-line of the science:policy world, in the offices of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Despite the rather clunky name, POST staff are expert communicators – continuously distilling complex scientifically derived information into accessible and easy to read “POSTnotes”. These are 4 page briefings that cover all areas of the physical, biological and social sciences, spanning policy topics as wide ranging as the effects of e-cigarettes to the impacts of non-native plant species.

As POST is an independent, non-political office of both Houses of Parliament, its briefings are always neutral, merely describing the evidence base as it is, rather than providing opinions on what policies should be implemented – that’s for the politicians to decide after all! It’s this neutrality and impartiality that results in POST being held in such high esteem by many MPs and Peers, as well as the wider science:policy community.

During my time at POST I was tasked with producing a POSTnote on an aspect of the climate system that may affect climate mitigation policies, “climate feedbacks”. Three months may sound an excessive amount of time to write a 4 page note but when you consider the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, a synthesis in itself, contained several hundred pages on climate feedbacks – you start to see it’s no trivial task.

And if I’m honest – the thought of condensing a whole sub-field of academic research into 4 pages, while making it relevant to the decisions parliamentarians will have to make, was extremely daunting. Especially when you consider my previous knowledge of the climate system could have been written on the back of a napkin…

But the POST team are old hands at producing POSTnotes and there’s a pretty standard procedure to follow – first background reading to get up to speed with the relevant terms and issues, then interviewing leading academics in the field to fill in the gaps, the second stage being a real highlight for me, as how often do you get a personal tutorial with a leader of an academic field? For me at least, not very often, but in the production of a POSTnote you talk to as many leaders in the field as you can. And it turns out; there really is no better way to understand a topic than to sit, undisturbed for an hour, with a whiteboard and a Fellow of the Royal Society who’s an expert in that area.

But the opportunity to learn about a new topic in a very short space of time, while honing your science communication skills, is not all the BES POST scheme offers. It also provides that most coveted of objects – a parliamentary security pass. This pass allows you access to pretty much all of Parliament, including many of its fine bars! Getting to hobnob with MPs and Peers (I accidentally elbowed Neil Kinnock out of the way while fighting my way to the Lords bar…) is a novelty which doesn’t wear off quickly – neither does the opportunity to explore one of the world’s great buildings at your leisure.

But more than the architecture and the bars, the pass also allows you to attend the myriad of parliamentary events, everything from champagne receptions toasting the publication of a new report to informal and intimate discussions with experts and policy makers. Sitting in a room with 20 other people to discuss the work of UNESCO with the UNESCO Director General was an experience I’ll never forget. Nor am I likely to forget meeting Nobel Prize Laureate Prof Peter Higgs (see photo), or discussing biodiversity protection with 5% of the population (all 2 of them) of Pitcairn Island, the world’s most remote inhabited island.

One of the strengths of the BES fellowship is that you are required to organise a parliamentary briefing event to complement the launch of your POSTnote. Organising this introduced me to the concept of the “breakfast briefing”, an ingenious idea that managed to get 12 parliamentarians and several leading climate change experts and stakeholders to sit around a table for an hour to discuss the policy implications of climate feedbacks.

There was agreement from all that the breakfast was a success, with one MP wondering why politicians and academics didn’t engage like this more often, a good question indeed! While another, having enjoyed the chance to interact with scientists so much, suggested it should be a funding condition that grant-holders must attend one 10 minute slot at their constituency MP’s surgery each year. This certainly got me thinking; as considering my opening quote, imagine the impact it could have if all grant-holders discussed the policy implications of their research once a year with their local MP?

All in all it was an incredible experience and one that I am so grateful for BES, BES staff and BES supporters for providing. I have learnt an incredible amount that has not only improved my understanding of the role of science in Parliament and wider society, but has also caused me to look at my own research in a different light. I would strongly encourage all eligible PhD students to apply as it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

My finished POSTnote can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-454/risks-from-climate-feedbacks

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