Newton’s Heirs Programme: The first four years of workshops (2008-2012)

“Newton’s Apple” is a non-partisan educational charity established with the objective of engendering mutual understanding between at scientists, policy-makers and politicians thereby enhancing evidence-based policy making in the UK.   Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) permeate our lives today and, as a nation, we face many challenges to which SET can offer solutions. For example in areas such as health, energy production, sustainable food production, transport and climate change.  It is important that regulation regarding new SET developments protects the public and our environment without impairing the application or effective exploitation of new developments. or prevent their effective exploitation.   It is essential that our policy-makers and legislators are sufficiently equipped to understand and evaluate the scientific evidence. They need to be “intelligent customers” for new SET opportunities. In turn the SET community must be able explain the scientific method to policy-makers and to communicate their science as advice in a clear and effective manner.

Many scientists are not well informed about policy matters and it is clear from the feedback we receive from our workshops that most have had little or no training to allow them to translate their findings to policy-makers, or to be effective communicators to non-scientists. Newton’s Apple has developed the Newton’s Heirs Programme of “Introduction to Science Policy” workshops.  The programme was developed with the help of young research scientists, civil servants and politicians and was designed for early career scientists and engineers.  The main aim of the programme is to help scientists and engineers to understand how science policy is made and how they can communicate their science to policy makers.

The Programme was launched in October 2008 with an event in the House of Commons at which the then Minister of Science Lord Drayson and the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington welcomed this much needed initiative.  Since the launch there have been 27 workshops in which over 670 young people have taken part.

The Workshops.

The ”Introduction to Science Policy” workshops were developed from our  experience in running workshops as a  part of the NESTA Crucible Lab project,  the British Association Communication Conference, the Women in Science Networking Conference 2007, and the British Association Festival of Science.

Fourteen of the workshops have been held in London, 11 of which have been kindly hosted in House of Commons Committee rooms in the Palace of Westminster by our MP Trustees.   We have been able to offer the Westminster workshops free of charge thanks to grants from UCB plc, the BBSRC and an anonymous supporter.  In addition we have run two events in partnership with the Institute of Physics, one for University College London, six for the University of East Anglia in Norwich and four for the University of Hull. These university-based workshops are funded by unrestricted Education Grants from the Universities and they last for three hours.  The open workshops held in Parliament are two hours long

The formats of the workshops are similar.   For the Westminster Workshops there are four speakers.  After an introduction to Government and Parliament structures and policy-formulating processes the participants hear from our panel of speakers.  They provide information on science and policy from the perspective of Parliament, Government Departments and Learned Societies. The panellists are experienced MPs or recently retired MPs, Civil Servants from major Government Departments and policy leaders from major scientific Learned Societies.  They bring their own unique experience to the events, and contribute ideas about how scientists can communicate their research to a policy audience.  In the earlier workshops open workshops and in those in the Universities there was also a speaker with experience of how scientific information and advice has lead to changes in Government policy, or has affected a new law in its making. This element has been dropped from the Westminster workshops due to time pressures. However all panellists are encouraged to include examples of how policy can be influenced during their own presentations.  During each workshop there is time for participants to raise their questions with the panellists and to join in discussions of what they have heard. Panel members are also usually available after the meeting for more informal discussion

The participants are also provided with our booklets “Science Policy Explained and Explored” and “How Policy is made – a Short Guide”, which have been supplemented from 2011-12 with our most recent booklet “An Introduction to Policy making in the European Union”.   These are all now available on our website.  As a bonus, participants are also provided with “A Directory of useful Science Policy Websites”.  This was developed as a result of requests from participants in the first workshop. It includes up-to-date website addresses for Government Departments and Governmental bodies, Parliamentary Select Committees,  major Learned Societies and Professional Institutions, Research Councils and Funding Councils, trade bodies, National Academies and the Medical Royal Colleges.

In order to encourage free discussion and questioning the number of participants at each workshop is restricted to 30-35.

Getting feedback from participants.

All participants are asked to fill out feedback forms before leaving workshop.  Our feedback completion rate is high.  Of the 674 people who have attended the workshops, forms were returned by 627.  The average return rate is 93%. Almost half of the events (13/27) had 100% returns.

On the forms participants are asked to score their level of understanding of policy matters before attending the workshop on a four point scale as follows:

  • No understanding
  • Some Understanding
  • A Good Understanding
  • An In-depth Understanding

At the end of the workshop they are asked to score their understanding using the same four point scale.  They are also invited to provide comments specifically on what they liked/disliked about the event and also to provide any general comments or suggestions they may have.

The Participants

For workshops held in the Universities they are responsible for recruiting participants from their own graduate schools.  The Westminster workshops are advertised on the Newton’s Apple Website (www.newtons-apple.org.uk), as well as through the graduate school channels in UCL,  Imperial College and latterly through the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research.  The result is inevitably that the large bulk of participants are from the London area.  However a number of participants come from some of the other London Institutions as well as from further afield. For example participants have come from Southampton, Warwick, Bristol, Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paisley to attend workshops.

As these workshops are designed for early career researchers it is not surprising that over 90% of them are PhD students or post-doctoral  researchers.  However we also have had trainees in various other disciplines, more senior academics, staff from science-based companies, Research Councils and other organisations attending.

There is great demand for these workshops from young scientists and engineers.  For example, all of our workshops in the present academic year have been oversubscribed. Following advertisements for the December 2011 workshop over 130 applications were received.

The participants varied in their level of knowledge of policy processes and, of those providing the information on the feedback forms, across all 27 workshops 241 (38.4%) claimed no prior understanding and 340 (54.2%) claimed to have had some understanding.   Forty two (0.6%) claimed to have had a good understanding and four (0.6%) to have had an in-depth understanding. ( See Table I.) There was some variability in prior experience between workshops, but those with either no or limited prior understanding always made up the great majority of participants (80% – 100%; average 92.6%).

 

The Feedback

Of those participants providing feedback after the workshop none reported that they were leaving with ‘no understanding’ of policy processes.  Twenty five percent claimed to have gained ‘some understanding’ as a result of the workshops but the majority (66.3%) felt they now had a ‘good understanding’.  Furthermore  54 (8.6%), including the 4 who came with this level of understanding, felt they were leaving with an ‘in-depth’ understanding.  (See Table I.)

Table I.  A Comparison of level of understanding of participants before and after the workshops

 

Level of

Knowledge

 Beforeworkshop

 

%

After workshop

 

%

No Understanding 241  38.4 0 0
Some Understanding 340 54.2 157 25.0
Good Understanding 42  6.7 416 66.3
In-depth Understanding 4 0.6 54 8.6
Number of returns 627   627  

 

Taken across all of the workshops, over 90% of participants claimed an increase of at least one level on our 4 point scale as a result of the workshop (See Table II).  These changes can be looked at in the different groups according to their levels of knowledge of policy matters before the workshop (See Table III.).

The majority of those claiming no change in their levels as a result of their attendance were in the groups claiming a pre-existing good (62% of the group) or an ‘in-depth’ (100% of the group) level of understanding. However one of the participants in the ‘in-depth’ group was engaged in a policy-related PhD project.   However none of those in the ‘no-understanding’ group and only 7.5% of the ‘some understanding’ group left with no improvement in their level of understanding.   However a number of these indicated that, although their understanding had not increased by one level, they had gained some new knowledge by attending the workshop.

Table II.  Improvement in levels of understanding of participants as a result of the workshop

 Improvement  0 levels  1 Level  2 Levels  3 Levels  Total
 No. Participants 56 431 136 4 627
 % Participants 8.9 68.7 21.7 0.6  

 

Of those in the ‘no-understanding’ group 98% claimed to have increased their level of understanding by either one or two levels and four actually claimed to be leaving with an ‘in-depth understanding’. In the ‘some understanding’ group 83.5% had improved their understanding by one level and 30 of this group claimed to have increased their understanding to the ‘in-depth’ level. Of those claiming to have already got a ‘good understanding’ before the workshop, 16 (38% of the group) said that their understanding had increased to the ‘in-depth’ level.

Participants also had an opportunity to include comments on the workshops on their feedback forms. Over 90% of them did so.  Many of the comments provided some very constructive suggestions for future workshops and these have been taken into account in the continual development of the Newton’s Heirs programme. For example, the introductions of our “Directory of Useful Science Policy Websites” and the production of our booklets  “How Policy is made – a Short Guide”  and  “ An Introduction to Policy making in the European Union” were in direct response to suggestions from participants.

Table III. Change in levels in the different  prior experience Groups.

 Understanding level at start  

None (%)

 

Some     (%)

 

Good (%)

 

In-depth (%)

 No increase

0 (0)

26 (7.5)

26 (62)

4 (100)

 1 level increase

131 (54.4)

284 (83.5)

16(38)

 2 levels increase

106 (44.0)

30 (9)

 3 levels increase

4 (1.7)

 No. in class

241

340

42

4

 

The comments we have received suggest that we are providing for a real need. They also suggest that the level of the information provided in the workshop and the accompanying materials are at the right level to satisfy the great majority of participants.  Comments regularly mention the good balance of speakers and the value they provide in the accounts they give of policy matters from their different perspectives.   We have had many comments suggesting that training of the sort provided by the Newton’s Heirs workshops should be included in the curriculum for the training of most science, engineering and technology postgraduates.  A  number of participants have also requested the provision of an opportunity to enlarge on what they have learnt through the workshops. A selection of comments from recent workshops will be found in the appendix to this report.

Conclusions

It is clear that this workshop programme is meeting a real need of early career scientists and engineers for information about policy formation in the UK and how to become involved.  It is encouraging that there is a real interest in these matters among the SET community.  Over the 27 workshops we have seen, in the discussions, an increasing interest among participants in career prospects in the policy arena.  Indeed, we have had a few participants who have gone on, or who intend to go on, to take up internships and other similar posts in government and parliamentary departments.

The feedback we have obtained from participants has been positive. It has clearly indicated that the workshops are serving a purpose which is not being met elsewhere. The feedback forms are kept deliberately simple in order to encourage their completion and return. No detailed definitions of what knowledge or understanding should be expected at each level are given apart from the simple categorisation of each level.  Because of this our return rate has generally been excellent from most workshops.  The form calls for a self-assessment to score the levels of understanding by the participants prior to, and after, the events and so these are necessarily subjective.  However we believe however that they do give a reasonable indication of the benefit to participants of attending the workshop.  The self-assessment scoring is supplemented by the comments provided on the form and these confirm the broad conclusions that can be drawn from the scoring scheme.

It must be remembered that the prime purpose of these workshops is to provide an “Introduction to Science Policy”. They are therefore aimed at those with either no, or only a cursory, understanding of policy matters. However a significant proportion of those coming to the workshop with a self-assessed “good understanding” have also gained from the workshop.

Our experience with the Newton’s heirs programme to date suggest that it would be beneficial for these workshops to be made more widely available in the regions.   We have been encouraged by the wider geographical representation in those workshops run in partnership with the Institute of Physics.  This was almost certainly encouraged by the Institute offering bursaries for attendees to contribute to their travel costs.  Experience with workshops in the Universities of East Anglia and Hull have shown that they can be successfully provided in other venues away from the Capital and we seek to encourage other Higher Education institutions to consider including Newton’s Heirs workshops as part of their postgraduate STEM programmes.

One recurring theme in the feedback comments is the desire of a number of participants to take their understanding of policy matters further, and to enlarge on what they have learnt through the workshops.  We are therefore currently considering  ways of providing further workshops to give more detailed exposure to particular aspects of the policy making processes.

Acknowledgements

It is a pleasure to acknowledge the help that Newton’s Apple has received from many people in the planning and execution of our Newton’s Heirs workshop programme.  In particular we are grateful to our two former directors of the Foundation, Ms Mia Nybrant and Ms Gillian Pepper, for the energy and enthusiasm that they brought to the project. We wish to thank the members of the Newton’s Heirs steering Committee for their work in establishing the need for these workshops and for creating their structure which has proved so successful and durable.

We owe a particular debt of gratitude to all who have contributed to the workshops as members of the speaker panel – our MP trustees, civil servants from Government departments, and in particular BIS and DEFRA and their predecessor departments, the officers of various Learned Societies and representatives of other organisations who contributed their knowledge and experience of policy Without all of their very willing and enthusiastic help, so freely given, these workshops would not have been possible.  We also thank all those young scientists who contributed to the workshops as participants for their feedback and suggestions. We have found these invaluable in fine tuning these events and for planning our future development of new workshops.

We are grateful to those members of the Universities of East Anglia and Hull and University College London for their support and encouragement, and making it possible for us to take these workshops out of Westminster and bring them to a wider audience. It is a pleasure also to acknowledge our partnership with the Institute of Physics through which it has been possible to engage UK’s Physics community in understanding policy matters.

Finally we thank the Trustees of the Foundation, both past and present, for their support and encouragement, and particularly those who have played active and energetic parts in the workshop programme as members of the panel and, together with their members of staff, for the efficient arranging of venues for these events.

 Michael W.Elves

July 21012

Appendix

Some representative comments from Participants

 

                                              **********

“Interesting talks from a variety of speakers from different backgrounds was good.”

“I liked the input from different parties which gave different perspectives”

“All speakers very good and informative.”

“Nice span of viewpoints.  All speakers good and interesting. Thanks for the Website lists and participants pack.”

“It was very interesting and useful to hear from people involved in different aspects of the policy process.”

“Good range of speakers, welcomed the opportunity to ask questions.”

“Great to get viewpoints from so many experienced people.”

“The speakers were all extremely clear and enthusiastic  about their work and their subjects.  It is very encouraging.”

“I liked hearing about how the policy process was explained with first hand examples.”

“I liked the clear explanation of the relationship between science and policy.”

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“Booklet clearly written outlining major players.”

“I will find the ’Directory of useful Science Websites’ particularly useful’.”

“The materials provided will be very useful for me and I will look up several of the reports mentioned.”

“Good additional material.”

“Useful information pack from Newton’s Apple; it will be good for future reference/contacts.”

“Really good accompanying materials – Nice format – good intro and nice to get lots of different perspectives from the panel.”

“I liked the workshop booklets as point for further reference. A very timely workshop.”

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“The Introduction presentation gave a clear picture.”

“A good introduction – thank you to the speakers, truly extraordinary people.”

“The MP speaker gave a good step-by-step scheme for translating scientific work into policy.”

“I appreciated the MP’s  realistic appraisal of the process.”

“The talk from the MP  was very engaging.”

“I liked the MP’s talk and display of the organisational structure of Governmental Offices and Departments.”

“Getting the MP’s perspective was very enlightening – really useful and interesting”

“ I enjoyed the Civil Servant speakers presentation and views.”

“The talk on the civil service was extremely useful to me.”

“I liked the session on ‘my experience of science in Government’.’”

“It was interesting to hear how science works in Government.”

“ I particularly liked hearing about the work of DEFRA.”

“ I liked the talks on lessons for campaigning and how DEFRA works.”

“The recommendations for how to get involved were very useful – the Learned Society speaker was very enlightening  –  gave useful information.”

“I liked the information regarding the importance of Learned Societies in the influencing of science policy.”

“I liked the talk about the importance of being part of valid learned societies for having impact on your say in policy making.”

“ I really agree with the opinion to join the Learned Society in your research field  .. but I don’t think it necessary to make too clear borders between the different fields.”

“I loved the comments from the Royal Society of Chemistry science policy representative.  Very good contributions from all the speakers.”

“I especially liked the Bee presentation. It was great to be told a few practical examples (of how policy can be influenced) to be able to understand these issues in a good way for people with not much knowledge about these sorts of situations.!”

“The British Bee Keepers Association talk is a good example to understand Science policy.”

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“ I liked the questions – very informative broad discussion.”

“ The open discussion at the end of the session was very interesting and informative.”

“I particularly liked the question/discussion time – it could have been longer.”

“The discussion was extremely helpful.”

“I greatly enjoyed all parts of the workshop, especially the discussion.”

“I liked the healthcare policy issues discussed – dementia and diabetes. I would like to know why these issues get ignored given the economic & societal advantages to research in these areas.”

“Discussion session at the end was most useful; able to ask specific questions – speakers opinions very valuable.”

**********

“Good mix of information. I am more interested in Science Policy now.”

“Overall I found it very informative with regards to science policies – with plenty of encouragement to consider engaging in science policy myself.”

“Very worthwhile – scientists need to know this stuff.”

“Extremely useful session. Sparked an interest in this area.”

“I would highly recommend this and similar workshops to my peers. I think it is important for scientists to know about science policy and science in Government.”

“I believe that all science degrees and postgraduate study should include assignments on science policy and awareness to allow more communication and understanding between scientists and politicians.”

“Great – this should be more widely offered – eg in Universities and career services.”

“I really enjoyed all of it.  My only comment is that it was too short, I would have liked to hear more.”

“Down-to-earth approach very much appreciated and very refreshing.”

“There was no talk today that I disliked, which is very unusual for a PPD Course. Fantastic talks,”

“Everything was good and interesting. It should be for all day next time.”

“Very interesting and useful.  Would have liked a full day perhaps with some role play.”

“Fascinating. Thanks.”

“A very good and worthwhile workshop. Thank you.”