Royal Society Pairing Scheme: science inside the UK Government

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I was incredibly lucky to be paired with Dr Nichola Spence, Chief Plant Health Officer at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (@plantchief). Image courtesy of the Royal Society.

As a scientist employed for all of my career in institutions partially funded by the British state it might seem that I would have a good understanding of how the UK Government gets the scientific information it needs and what science goes on within it. The reality is that I had very little idea, based on a few assumptions, what I read in the media, and not very flattering television series such as The Thick of it. It was because of this, and an interest in how the science I and my colleagues do might influence policy, that I applied for the Royal Society Pairing Scheme. The scheme involves a scientist being paired with an MP or Civil Servant. The scientist spends two days shadowing their pair, preceded by  an introduction to Westminster and followed by a half day of seminars on science in government. I can honestly say that it was one of the best things I have done! Not just because I was paired with a very dynamic and welcoming Chief Plant Officer at Defra but because the whole experience gave me far greater confidence and belief in Government, as we enter a turbulent time for our Country and the World.

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An entry from the new Plant Health Portal showing a summary of the information available on one of the most threatening pests of plants, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa.

I was very impressed by the quality of the science and engagement that takes place at the UK Plant Health laboratories near York. Also with the dedicated and friendly atmosphere. On our first day the agency launched the UK Plant Health Information Portal, a searchable database of the highest risk plant pest and diseases to UK farming, horticulture and forestry that includes over 900 reported pests that are scanned Worldwide. On our second day I was able to sit-in on the Plant Health Forum, a forum between government, trade bodies, NGOs such as the Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission which meets regularly to discuss new concerns, pests and solutions. It was a very open and frank meeting and not really what I expected from Government.

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One half of the 2016 Royal Society Pairing scheme scientist intake at Westminster. Image courtesy of Farah Ahmed.

Our science in government seminars provided an overview of how Government gets scientific information and the contrasts between the executive, Members for Parliament (MPs) and Members of the Lords. Government has three well established and connected sources of scientific information, advisors and an extensive network of contacts in academia. In contrast, MPs, who have very little time and minimal administrative support depend on their researchers to source scientific information. Unfortunately, the researchers themselves are very poorly paid and often recent graduates who stay a few months before moving on to another job and also have very little time themselves. The result is that MPs are very poorly briefed compared to civil servants and the executive. The Lords, fit somewhere in-between the two, having more time to devote to sourcing information but little dedicated support. This might be one of the reasons that the Royal Society started the pairing scheme sixteen years ago which I feel very privileged to have participated in.

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