In which I went to the Houses of Parliament to hear from politicians interested in science.
Yesterday I spent the afternoon in the Houses of Parliament- more specifically a building linked to the Houses of Parliament called Portcullis house. (It really is physically linked by an underground walkway for MPs.) The reason I was there was for an event called the Voice of the Future organised by the Royal Society of Biology.
I say ‘event’ because it was a strange set up. The whole thing was meant to be like a select committee– it took place in the actual rooms where select committees are held. Lots of scientific organisations sent young representatives to ask questions of an array of different politicians. I was there on behalf of CaSE which I’ve mentioned before and is the campaign for science & engineering.
I initially didn’t have a very high expectation for the day as we had been sent a long document with loads of rules that also explained that we would not all be allowed to ask questions and if we were they were pre-vetted and written down for us to read off a piece of paper and not necessarily the ones we submitted. This gave the whole thing a bit of an artificial feel, as the politicians had seen the questions before they were asked, and we were basically just reading aloud probably other people’s questions.
I was concerned that this had given the politicians a chance to get rid of anything they didn’t want to answer, but it didn’t appear that way- some of the questions were tricky and quite confrontational, and they covered all the areas that I wanted to ask about– the EU, science in the media, open source publishing, how scientists can help politicians and lots more.
In fairness, fact that the questions had been pre-chosen was openly talked about so that anyone watching the broadcast (it was on BBC Parliament and some kind of live stream) would know. I get that we probably would have doubled up on points if we had not made sure of the questions beforehand, and also it is probably a good idea to give the politicians a read of the questions so they have the facts they need to answer them fresh in their minds.
However it was still a bit simulated, and definitely wasn’t a debate, as some people called it. We could ask unscripted follow-up questions but it certainly didn’t have the atmosphere of a healthy debate, as the chair told us they had to be on the same topic, and even that if we defamed anyone we could get sued! I’m sure this was just a precaution, but this and the fact that we were in a very tightly controlled environment (even the way we walked to the chairs was discussed at length) on film made it quite unnerving and not a situation where I felt comfortable to really ‘answer back’ or speak up about a differing opinion. That said, that was not what the occasion was- it was meant to be like a select committee which I’m sure is very much under scrutiny and with lots of formalities.
I did learn a lot about science and policy from the day, and there were some really interesting people speaking. There were four panels: the first was Sir Mark Walport the chief scientific advisor, the second was the science and technology select committee, the third was Jo Johnson minister for science and the last was Yvonne Fovargue who is the shadow minister for business innovation and skills.
The most interesting in my opinion were the second and last panels. The select committee in particular were very forceful in their opinion that more scientists should get involved with policy, and speak to their local MPs about their work. There was also a call for better translation of scientific evidence and facts for MPs who are often given a large amount of data with not much time or the understanding needed to process it properly. This is a thing that CaSE and many of the other organisations around the table do, and something I would definitely like to get more involved with.
One of them (my journalistic skills are failing here as I couldn’t see which one!) also made the excellent and difficult point that scientists sometimes fetishise science and assume that scientific views carry more weight- this is obviously the case within science, but living in a democracy you can’t automatically de-value anyone else’s opinion.
After the second panel, we were witness to a parliamentary first which was the first ever address from outer space from Tim Peake which was pretty awesome and apparently a lot of effort to collaborate with NASA and arrange!
It was great to hear from the politicians that they are approached by scientists often and find it easy to access expert opinions. It seems like there are lots of schemes for scientists to meet politicians, but I suppose we were seeing only the people with a self-professed interest in science, so it would be interesting to see if that theme carried on generally into the rest of Parliament.
There was also a trend that the people with the most power tended to give more bland and evasive answers, so maybe it gets harder to be openly positive and enthusiastic as you gain more power!
Overall it was a fun and insightful day and I left feeling a lot less cynical than I expected to going into it, as many of the issues sounded like they were really being considered by the politicians and they all seemed incredibly well-informed and intelligent which was kind of a surprise, although I suppose it shouldn’t be!
If you are a part of one of the organisations it is organised by I would definitely recommend asking to go, as it was a good chance to hear first-hand MPs discussing science and for an insight into science policy. Don’t have your heart set on asking a particular question though!