The Royal Society MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme
By Dr. William Davies
The Royal Society MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme is an annual event in which scientists (typically in the early stages of an independent career) are paired with local Members of Parliament. The primary aims of the scheme are: to make scientists aware of some alternative structures through which they can feed their scientific knowledge to parliamentarians, to help scientists understand the pressures with which MPs operate under, to encourage MPs to form direct links with a network of practising research scientists, and to provide MPs with an idea about the scientific process which they will hopefully use to make better informed policy decisions.
Participating in the scheme appealed to me, both as a scientist and as a voter. As a scientist, I wanted to understand the advantages and limitations of the current parliamentary process through which emerging scientific findings (often in controversial areas) might be used to objectively inform policy. As a voter, I was interested in the general process through which political decisions are taken, and the various factors that might contribute to the making of those decisions.
My MP partner was Mr Roger Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, a newly-elected member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, and a man with a background in scientific research. In the first week of November 2010 (1st-4th), I, together with 28 other individuals on the scheme (and its sister Civil Servant-Scientist Pairing Scheme), met in London for ‘Westminster Week’. The first day of the week included a tour of the incredibly impressive Houses of Parliament followed by a series of talks by politicians and civil servants with a particular interest in science (notably the Chief Scientific Officer). The second day consisted of shadowing Mr Williams: this included meeting members of various lobby groups, attending a meeting on the redevelopment of the St Athan military base in South Wales and sitting in on a Liberal Democrats policy team meeting. On Wednesday, participants on the scheme attended a Science and Parliamentary Select Committee meeting addressing how the Government dealt with the volcanic ash crisis. It was fascinating to see how the committee members interacted with the four panel members (two scientists, a member of the Civil Aviation Authority and a representative of British Airways) in an effort to determine how and why the crisis arose and, more importantly, how a similar scenario may be avoided in the future. In the afternoon, I watched Prime Minister’s Questions, attended a conference run by the Society of General Microbiology regarding the importance of microbiology in climate change research, and visited the Chinese embassy with my MP in order to promote trade links with Wales.
My final two days in the Houses of Parliament consisted of observing oral questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, watching a House of Lords debate on the Spending Review and of drinking coffee whilst sitting next to Reverend Ian Paisley. I thoroughly enjoyed my week in Westminster, which took place against a backdrop of key issues being debated (university tuition fees and the spending review). I gained a valuable insight into how scientists might be able to influence policy by written submission, or by appearing in front of select committees. I also began to appreciate the broad range of knowledge which MPs are required to possess, the stress of dealing with people holding diametrically opposed views, and the time pressures under which parliamentarians are expected to work.
On 21st January 2011 I returned the favour. I showed Mr Williams around the new MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics within the School of Medicine at Cardiff University. I explained to him how a key aim of the Centre was to recruit large numbers of patients with well-defined psychiatric illnesses, and identify genetic differences between these groups and healthy individuals. I described how, once identified, we could investigate how these variations might influence gene function, how they might cause the specific features of the illness, and how their effects might be remedied through novel, more effective therapies. Mr Williams was extremely interested in the research that was being carried out in the Centre, and could immediately see its potential benefits to a large sector of society; I agreed to review any relevant scientific literature for Mr Williams.
In conclusion, the Pairing Scheme allowed me to gain an important insight into the democratic process in the UK, and particularly how it relates to science policy. Through participating, I began to fully appreciate how policy is ultimately a compromise situation, informed by a combination of financial considerations, public opinion and scientific evidence. This is one way in which science enters the social domain. The scheme also provided me with the opportunity to interact with talented young scientists from a diverse range of disciplines and from both industry and academia to identify common areas of difficulty in contemporary science.