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A week in Westminster: how science and policy interact

Georgina (George) Starling is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow based between Dr Jeremy Carlton's Lab at King's and the Francis Crick Institute and Professor Adrian Isaac's Lab at UKDRI@UCL. She recently took part in the Royal Society 'Week in Westminster' Pairing Scheme, providing her with an opportunity to travel to Westminster and experience first hand how science and policy intersect and are used in government.

Georgina Starling week in Westminster canva

Dr Georgina Starling (right) with her pair, Eunice (left) at the OPSS offices in the Department of Business and Trade, Caxton House, Westminster

Being politically engaged and scientific minded, science policy has always been an intriguing but seemingly impenetrable world to a lab-based biologist like myself. So when I saw the Royal Society's 'Week in Westminster' Pairing Scheme being advertised, I immediately knew I wanted to apply. The policy scheme has run since 2000 and recruits around 30 scientists every year and pairs them with civil servants or MPs for shadowing, talks and events in government. The idea of the scheme is to allow scientists insight into how their work and knowledge can help inform policy whilst government workers get expert advice, insight and knowledge into science research and opinions. With over 200 applications for just 30 places, and the fact that I had only just passed the minimum Post-Doc experience to apply (2 years), I was prepared to be unsuccessful but determined to try, pouring effort into my application. So when I received word in January that I had been shortlisted, I was thrilled and excited for my mini-sabbatical in Westminster. A whirlwind of emails, schedules and invitations later and I was heading to the Strand Palace Hotel on a Sunday in March, laden with all the smart clothes I could scour from my wardrobe, an empty notebook and a packed schedule for the week.

My initial nerves were quickly removed by meeting the fantastic and diverse group of scientists in this year's cohort. I would go on to spend a lot of time with them over the week: during workshops, talks, and debriefing pub trips. I really appreciated the opportunity to meet scientists - from post-docs like myself to PIs and professors - across diverse fields including climate change, astrophysics, STEM education and sustainable architecture. Despite the broad range of fields, many faced the same problems within research. I was grateful to see many of these topics were covered by the Royal Society's 'Manifesto for Science' Policy which recommended new policies for the upcoming government which we attended the launch of at the Houses of Parliament. Many of the other scheduled events would answer my initial questions surrounding science policy, about the who, what, why and how of science policy and, throughout the week, I could see and understand the network where science and policy intersects and what roles MPs, civil servants, the Royal Society and scientists like myself play within it.

Royal Society Pairing Scheme scientists

The scientists on the Royal Society Pairing Scheme 2024 in a Select Committee room, Palace of Westminster

The main bulk of the week was spent with my civil service pair, Eunice, who works at the Office for Product and Safety Standards (OPSS), which is responsible for the regulations of most consumer goods excluding food, medicines and vehicles. If you have ever seen a product recall sign, it is probably due to this team testing and deeming it unsafe. The majority of the time was spent getting tours, having meetings and generally talking about the structural and cultural difference between academic research and government research and the policies these feed into.

The main difference from my (brief) experience was the time-frame of experiments. In research you can pick up and start an experiment whenever but, due to government being funded by tax-payers, all decisions must be justified and accepted as good use of public funds which makes the process significantly slower. Although, one could argue, the more thorough process not only prevents wasted money but also prevents more failures and irrelevant experiments. I really got a feel for the civil service work environment and the process from generating scientific data (in OPSS case e.g. assaying for toxic elements in makeup) to policy action (e.g. taking any toxic cosmetics off the market) and how science data can and does lead to real world affects through policy. My civil service pair was absolutely fantastic at getting me involved with her week but I was also able to network with many of the other civils servants and MPs from a wide variety of departments including GO Science, the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology and the Department of Business and Trade.

As I now reflect on the week, back in the lab in my casual clothes and my temperamental experiments, the whole area of science policy seems a lot less murky to me. My main takeaway was that science and policy overlap in two separate ways: 'Policy for Science' and 'Science for Policy'. Policy for Science aims to improve the science research ecosystem and I felt the topics and problems being discussed reflected my experience and thoughts well and I was surprised and appreciative that there are roles specifically focused on these problems. I even met civil servants whose whole job was to try and solve the problem of geographic funding disparity.

Georgina Starling week in Westminster Royal Society

George outside the Royal Society Building, St James

The second is Science for Policy, which is the use of science data to inform on policy e.g. use of research data on climate change or expertise opinion of the use of CRISPR in medicine. I got a sense of the deep respect that the government has for scientists' expert opinions as well as a desire to get more scientists engaged with government due to our understanding of complex data, analytical skills and abstract thinking.

I would encourage anyone to apply to the Royal Society Pairing scheme but to also consider how you can help policy with your specific knowledge and expertise. So if you are interested in learning more, offering up your technical expertise or are particularly good at simplifying complex scientific concepts, look at POST to see what problems the government is trying to get scientists' opinion on or head over to GO Science if you want to see what other policy schemes are available that could be open to you.

Through the Royal Society Policy Pairings Scheme, I've not only gained insights into the mechanisms behind policymaking but also a fantastic network of civil servants, Royal Society Staff and other scientists, all with the shared goal of using science to ultimately drive positive change for society.

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