The Dreaded Comprehensives

So, the other day I had my first comprehensive tutorial. I’ve mentioned them before—they are the two three hour papers on the last three years of Physics that strike fear into everyone’s hearts. Since the start of term I’d heard people discussing their revision plans for them, which is always a terrifying conversation to overhear, especially when you haven’t even looked at a paper!

Comprehensives are actually supposed to be a selling point of an Imperial Physics degree I think, because they are all about whether you actually can do Physics not just remember stuff for a one-off exam. Of course, that’s what makes them scary—I think to some extent everyone thinks that their good exam results are a very improbable fluke—or maybe that’s just me… 😛

Anyway, the paper we looked at in my first tutorial was actually much less scary then I expected.

There are ten questions and you only have to answer four, so you should be able to avoid your particularly hated topics (although the questions do mix the courses up quite a bit so you might get a nasty shock half-way through!) My tutors are also both great. The real problem with them seems to be in terms of time to revise all the relevant topics—because it contains material from literally all the past core courses. I am actually looking forward to going over things like thermodynamics and differential equations, but when exactly I will fit those in on top of my current state of not keeping up with my current courses…. Hmm. I think a regular >6 hours of sleep is an impossible target for this year.

More cheeringly, this week I also went to my second London Forum for Science Policy Think-tank event. This was called ‘how to write a policy paper’ but also featured three people who worked in policy and told us about how their jobs worked and gave a little more insight into the world of politics and policy. It is a strange one.

The people who actually write policy—who are constant whichever government is in power— have to deal with the regular replacement of the ministers who are their bosses, and who all have their own ideas and their own agenda, that may or may not be in line with evidence, or indeed any kind of rational thought.

An example of this is Chris Mullin, a labour minister under Tony Blair who was environment minister, as well as other things, but whose greatest ambition in his career was to outlaw Leylandii—a type of fast-growing hedge.

A thing that struck me about the descriptions of the world of policy was the complete lack of scientific rigour about the process. Though evidence is gathered from Think tanks and academic literature on policy topics, anecdotal evidence from people who might be effected is apparently usually given a higher priority. The policy paper then has to be carefully worded so that any Leylandii hating minister will give it consideration. Then whether it actually goes through is a case of if the minister wants to put that particular policy to their name or wants to lay-low and not decrease their popularity before the next election. In addition, both civil servant speakers said that the assessment of policy—seeing quantitatively whether it has worked or not—is a relatively new idea, and is still not done in any great detail.

Despite this, one of the speakers had said earlier that in his opinion most policies did have positive effects. That seems like kind of wishful thinking, to me—how can he be sure of that if there is no data gathered? No-one can see how a policy effects everyone in society, or even a representative cross-section. This is obviously a very biased view of mine coming from a science background, but it seems absolutely loopy that for hundreds of years we have been happily bashing out policies effecting millions of people that no-one has actually bothered to check if they work or not…

However, if enough people want a change in policy, and if there is evidence to back it, I suppose it will eventually get changed. A recent report published about drug policy is an example of this.

This finally admits that our drug policy has been directly going against the evidence for years. Policy moves slowly, but I suppose it has to, because otherwise no one would know whether they were coming or going.

It was also interesting to note how the civil servants were almost apologetic about what they did, saying often that the process of policy needed to be improved—to get greater feedback, to have more authentic conversations with experts, and to generally get more bottom-up policy ideas rather than just ideas from the government.

The next step for the Think tank is for people to write policy papers of our own. I am not sure yet what areas I would like to get involved with, but the process should be a great insight into how things actually get put into legislation.

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