BGS visits Westminster... by Lorraine Field

Freya Horsfield (left) & myself (right)
(c) Royal Society
Lorraine Field, BGS Petrologist, visited Westminster for a whole week to observe parliament in action as part of The Royal Society MP Pairing scheme. Here's what she made of it...
I wanted to take part in the scheme because I had no idea how science fed into policy making – Westminster seemed to be something of a faceless black box.

The four days I spent in central London as part of the scheme brought Westminster to life, starting with a lively history and anecdotal-filled tour of the Palace of Westminster.  A series of lectures followed, organised by the Royal Society, around how Parliament works and how science fits into the day to day business. These formed a basic insight for the scheme participants into understanding of how the different departments, process (including select committees) and science itself fit together within the policy process. Talks and discussions from Parliamentarians, such as the Rt Hon The Earl of Selborne, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee and Dr Sarah Barber, Library Clerk, Science and Environment Section, House of Commons Library were invaluable in understanding the ways in which scientific information is gathered into the policy and decision making process. A clear message which came across is that there is an invaluable role for scientists to play, but also a responsibility on the scientific community to become involved within this process.

Within the week, there is opportunity to shadow your paired civil servant or MP and visit their offices. I was one of three scientists visiting the Government Office for Science, and an energy and climate change workshop was organised for civil servants from several different departments. This gave each of the visiting scientists the opportunity to present an introduction to both our scientific research and our respective organisations.

Here are some of the scientist participants enjoying a lively tour around the Palace of Westminster at the start of our ‘Week in Westminster’
The MP Pairing Scheme participants took part in a mock select committee within the real surroundings of a House of Lords committee room which was an informative insight into one of the major ways scientific evidence is provided to MPs. We also had the opportunity to view the process for real when we attended a House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee as observers. It was also a fantastic opportunity to be able to attend debates in both the House of Commons and House of Lords as part of this visit.

GO Science organised a final day of talks and activities including a SAGE exercise, which helped us understand the process by which Government reacts to a crisis, and the resulting requirement for rapid scientific input.

The mock select committee within one of the splendid House of Lords committee rooms preparing questions for the scientific witnesses
My paired civil servant, Freya Horsfield, Senior Policy Advisor for GO Science [in full, Government Office for Science], was invited to the BGS HQ at Keyworth on a reciprocal visit on a freezing cold day in early December. She was joined by two of her colleagues who were also able to take the opportunity to visit: Dr Rupert Wilmouth, Head of Energy, and Dr Neil Waby, Policy Advisor for Energy. A packed day began with an informative discussion with Professor Mike Stephenson, Director of Science and Technology at BGS, followed by a variety of meetings and facilities tours to give a flavour of the work that BGS are involved in. We saw everything from actual core held within the National Geoscience Data Centre, to ‘flying’ across, around and under the UK geology within our 3D Visualisation Suite, and being able to see many of our laboratories in action.

Here I am explaining to Freya Horsfield the process of isotopic analysis of fallow deer teeth in the clean labs of the National Isotope Geological Laboratories (NIGL) at BGS, Keyworth
The aim of the scheme is to increase communications and awareness between Parliament and Scientists. From my perspective it has certainly done that - Parliament is less of black box and more of a multicoloured jigsaw! I now have a far better perception of how the different departments and processes fit together, and the role that science can play. I hope that some of the links and introductions made between the two organisations will become the basis for long term working relationships.


[This blog has also been submitted to The Royal Society's In Verba science policy blog]