What happens when science and policy collide?

29 April 2017 - By: Caroline Wood

What happens when science and policy collide? 

SiP trip to Westminster
SiP trip to Westminster. Photo: Science in Policy, University of Sheffield


By Caroline Wood

We’d all like to think that government decisions are based on rigorous evidence, especially when it comes to science, but how many of us actually know how to bring our research to the attention of politicians? At the University of Sheffield, a group of early-career researchers decided to clear up the confusion about what happens when science meets politics …. and the Science in Policy (SiP) Group was born!

Given that so few politicians have a scientific background (for instance, only 4% of the current crop of UK MPs), it’s vital that researchers know the channels that exist that give them a way into political debates. “We found that there was this void of knowledge – scientists had no idea how research translates into policy and how they could be useful,” says Remi Vergnon, one of the founding members of SiP. Starting small within the Animal and Plant Science Department, the SiP committee lost no time in organising seminars and inviting speakers. As our events became increasingly popular and began to attract audiences from across the Faculty of Science, we were able to secure a Science Gateway for Innovation Grant – opening the door for more and bigger events. So far, our seminars have featured representatives from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the IPCC, Greenpeace International, the Soil Association, Sense about Science, the European Research Council and many more. Together, speakers from these organisations have revealed the wealth of careers available at the dynamic science–policy interface, demonstrating that there is another alternative to the standard academic path.

Politically Speaking

Besides showcasing science policy-related organisations, another of the group’s key
objectives is to develop practical skills to help researchers make an impact on the public arena. With support from the Parliamentary Outreach service, we have hosted a number of workshops and one day conferences to reveal the nuts-and-bolts of how scientists can reach policy-makers. These have included how to present evidence at Select Committees and a masterclass in writing briefing notes.

Meanwhile in our POST Note competition, teams were given the challenge to summarise a contemporary scientific issue in a concise briefing paper that an MP could understand while having their breakfast! Building on the relationships we had forged with Parliament, we were even able to arrange a guided visit to Westminster last year, with the chance to sit in on a Select Committee briefing. “We’d talked a lot about how scientists can submit evidence, so to actually sit in on an inquiry made it all real,” says Helen Hicks, outgoing Chair of SiP. Given that debate is integral to the policy-making process, we have also hosted a number of public events, including a ‘Question Time’-style debate and a panel discussion on food ethics. Typically, these have been full-house events with a lively series of audience questions.

Elect to get involved

So if you feel as though your research sits within a bubble that the wider world knows nothing about, or that your views are never heard by policy makers, why not set up your own Science in Policy group? Helen Hicks shares her top tips:

• If you don’t ask, you don’t get! Don’t be afraid to invite high profile speakers; you can never aim too high. But do make use of your own personal contacts and networks as well.

• Universities and institutes are always very keen to show their wider impact and may be able to offer funding – particularly if your events reach across multiple departments.

• Free wine and refreshments are always a great incentive to boost audience numbers!

 
Find out more about Science in Policy here.
 

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Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.