Reflections on the Sheffield University Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures Workshop in Westminster

We held an “Introduction to Science Policy” workshop in Westminster on the 26th April 2017 for scholars from Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. This workshop was our first event in collaboration with Parliament’s outreach Service (Parliament UK). The objective of the workshop was to give the participating researchers some understanding of the policy-making processes in Government and Parliament and of how to influence policy.

The Speakers

Ms Naomi Saint (Universities Programme Manager for Parliament’s Outreach Service), gave an introduction to the UK Parliament and explained its structure and the roles of MPs and the Members of the House of Lords.  She explained the various functions of Parliament ranging from Law making, and scrutinising Government, to being the highest Court in the land. Her presentation included an interactive quiz, which tested the audience’s knowledge of Parliament.

Mr Paul Blomfield MP (MP for Sheffield Central) gave a more detailed account of the work of Members of Parliament. This included the stages involved in the creation of new legislation or regulation and the scrutiny of Government policy. As a representative of a large student population, with previous experience of working at the University of Sheffield, Paul was able to explain his work in a manner relevant for the audience. He stressed that MP’s need specialist information and expert opinions from outside Parliament when considering matters on the Parliamentary agenda. He encouraged participants to get to know their local MP and to offer specialist help when matters within their areas of interest are being debated in Parliament.

Mr Andrew Miller (former MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, and a former Chairman of both the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee and the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee) gave an account of the role of Select Committees, focusing on the Science and Technology Select Committee. He outlined the Committee’s remit which includes the scrutiny of potential new Government policies and also exploring areas impacting on the science base where new, or altered, legislation is needed. The committee also examines the workings of the Research Councils, new incumbents in public sector roles, and investigates the impact of major science-based company mergers on the UK’s research capacity.

Andrew emphasised the importance of inquiry evidence provided by individuals and groups within the STEM community.

Dr Marsha Quallo-Wright (Head of Corporate Services, Government Office for Science) explained the work of the Government Departments and the Civil Service in the creation and implementation of policy. She explained how the Government obtains and uses scientific advice in the formulation of policies. She emphasised the work of the Government Office for Science and the advice it gives to the Prime Minister in, for example, the event of international disasters and their potential impact on the UK. She also mentioned the importance of having scientists, engineers and technologists in Government departments.

Dr Stephen Benn (Director of Parliamentary Affairs, the Royal Society of Biology) described the role and activities of the Scientific Learned Societies in responding to Governmental and Parliamentary inquiries and their calls for evidence. He talked about the interaction of these bodies with politicians in the provision of specialist advice. He stressed the important role that the STEM community and its professional bodies should have in these processes. He also mentioned the activities that are being organised by the Learned Societies in Westminster during STEM week.

The case study

The formal part of the workshop concluded with a case study to illustrate how the STEM community can provide advice during policy processes and how such advice may influence outcomes.

Dr Michael Elves (Chairman of Newton’s Apple and a former Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee) discussed the Select Committee’s examination of the problem of Light Pollution and its adverse impact upon Astronomy. This Inquiry stressed the lack of government actions to limit the effect of light pollution or give effective guidance for planning authorities in this matter. The Committee was aided in its deliberations by evidence provided by both academic and amateur astronomers and ‘Dark Skies’ campaign groups. An outcome of the Inquiry was not only an increased awareness of the issue but also improved regulatory measures and new legislation making some forms of light pollution a Statutory Nuisance.  This case study also highlighted the length of time it that it can take for scientific advice to influence new legislation.

In addition to questions to the individual speakers after their presentations, there was also a general discussion at the end of the formal presentations which ranged over a number of areas and there was good participation by members of the audience.

We were pleased to welcome Dr Jonny Wentworth from POST who joined us for this workshop.

Some conclusions from Michael W. Elves, Chairman of Newton’s Apple

From the feedback obtained from the participants in this workshop, and particularly from the comments provided, it is clear that the participants found the event informative, useful and enjoyable.  

When Newton’s Apple was established the intention was to help younger members of the STEM community (research students and early career academics) to understand the processes by which policy and legislation are made, and how these can be influenced and improved by good advice. It is encouraging therefore that the majority of the participants in this workshop said that their understanding of these processes had been improved as a result of the workshop. The motivation for many of the students attending this workshop was a desire to understand how they can influence policy.

Participant comments

“The Newton’s Apple Books are informative and useful.”

“I enjoyed the case study showing an example of how science contribution and Select Committee work had an impact for astronomy and light pollution.”

“I really enjoyed the case study by Dr Elves as it shows a real example of where science changed policy. Hope for the future!”

“If we as scientists don’t provide evidence we cannot expect policy to be based on it.”

“I liked the talk by Paul Blomfield as this was my first interaction with an MP.”

“It was useful to have real-life examples to bring the processes and institutions to life.”


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