Engaging with policymakers, especially those in Westminster, can take many forms. Dr. Maria Pregnolato shares her recent experience and identifies how to improve the interaction between research and policy.
The what and when:
In April 2021, I was part of a ‘Pairing Scheme’ organised by the Royal Society with the ambition to, ‘give policymakers and research scientists an opportunity to experience each other’s worlds’.
Scientists with at least two years postdoctoral or industry research experience across STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Maths) are eligible to apply (details here).
Typically, some 250 applications are shortlisted to 60 candidates from which 30 will be paired with Parliamentarians or Civil Servants. The selected researchers see first-hand how research findings can help inform policymaking, and how they can be involved.
Due to current circumstances, activity was online, beginning with a virtual ‘Week in Westminster’. This included a number of presentations, including ‘How Parliament Works’ given by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and ‘How Select Committees Work’ hosted by the (Commons) Science and Technology Committee.
We also got to quiz the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark, MP and hear from keynote speakers like Prof. Paul Monks, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Our roundtable discussions included an exploration of the role for research and innovation in ‘levelling up’ the UK and in a ‘politics live’ session we watched Prime Minister’s Questions.
I was paired with Chi Onwurah, MP. She studied electrical engineering and was Head of Telecoms Technology at Ofcom before entered in Parliament in 2010. Chi brings her prior learning and experience to bear in her role as Shadow Minister for Digital, Science and Technology. I had previously met Chi when I was selected to present my research at ‘STEM for Britain’ in 2016 when a PhD student at Newcastle University, since she was, and still is, the MP for Newcastle.
I particularly enjoyed the Q&A session with Amanda Solloway, MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Science, Research and Innovation) at BEIS. She was very keen to stay in touch, to reach out as much to the research community(“please give us information”) and she spoke of a vision to give funding without complex process of grants, “which perhaps give no justice to good research not well-written”.
What did I learn?
- Policymakers rely on experts and have scientists in the background to inform them.
- When scientists inform, the responsibility is not on them: politicians make the decisions.
- To have policy influence – communication is key: engage early and be persistent, and sharp, e.g., concise specific messages and tangible recommendations, three sentences max, and have examples that are easily understood.
- MPs are more open and available than you might imagine.
What might improve the interaction between research and policy?
There are a few barriers between policy and research, notably:
- The timeframe (years vs. days).
- The language used.
- Not enough opportunities like this scheme, and
- No formal pathways of engagement.
Though if scientists and researchers embrace the opportunities that exist and seek to create other chances to make contact with policymakers, building networks, then relationships are established so that collaboration is easier – even at pace – so that research can inform both policy development and implementation.
Was it worthwhile?
Absolutely yes. I am grateful to Royal Society for this opportunity, and I very much recommend that anyone interested in impactful research considers an application or seeks to engage with policymakers in other ways.