Scientists hear how they can influence public policy

18 October 2013

Scientists can influence the direction of public policy, whether they are recent graduates or well advanced in their careers. This was the message from a seminar jointly organised by science policy foundation Newton’s Apple and the IOP.

Around 30 people, many of them PhD students or postdocs, came to the event on 15 October at the IOP’s London office to hear presentations from former MPs Ian Gibson and Brian Iddon, Chris Fleming, head of research community issues at the Government Office for Science, and the IOP’s director of education and science, Prof. Peter Main. The event was chaired by Michael Elves, chairman of Newton’s Apple and a former special adviser to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee.

Elves explained the process by which science policy is framed and put into effect, and how scientific issues and the need for scientific advice permeate virtually all areas of government. Despite this, the science community is not well represented in parliament, he said, with few MPs having experience of working in science, and the House of Lords being only slightly better, with 20-30 scientists among its members.

Elves encouraged the audience to engage with science policy by working with their local MPs and contributing their views and input to consultations through their learned societies. This was echoed by all the speakers, including Prof. Main, who detailed the range of the IOP’s science policy work through publications, meetings and responses to consultations, as well as press releases and parliamentary events. He said: “Professional bodies are probably the best way for you to be influential in politics, particularly in early career. Much of what we do is to persuade the government, civil servants and others of the value and importance of physics.”

He described the rationale behind some of the Institute’s campaigns and the impact these appeared to have had. The IOP had, for example, published a report to highlight the underfunding of physics departments, after which funding increased by about £1000 per student, he said. Another IOP campaign to allow prospective teachers to train to teach physics with maths had resulted in the government adopting the measure. Elves described a successful campaign by scientists to stop an EU directive that would have severely curtailed the use of MRI scanners.

Both Iddon and Gibson had served on the Science and Technology Select Committee, with Gibson being its former chair. Answering questions on their decisions to leave research and embark on a political career, Gibson suggested there were few scientists in parliament because scientists were so busy in their professional lives.

In a talk on “Science in Government”, Fleming encouraged audience members to engage with public policy, but to keep in mind the difference between lobbying and advice. All the speakers agreed that government ministers had the right to take decisions that were contrary to scientific advice, but that they should be transparent about their reasons for doing so.

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