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ICR researchers visit Westminster to see science policy making in action

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Last week, two of our researchers here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, spent a week in Westminster as part of the Royal Society MP Pairing Scheme.

The scheme partners researchers with MPs, allowing the scientists to experience how science can influence policy, and gives the MPs a day to visit the researchers in their labs and learn more about issues in science. Dr Lorenzo Melchor and Dr Maria Vinci were paired with Sutton and Cheam MP, Paul Burstow, who Dr Vinci had previously met when she was invited to present her work in the House of Commons earlier this year.

After their busy week of shadowing, sitting in on debates and committees, and touring the Houses of Parliament, I caught up with them so that they could share their experiences with us.


What did you enjoy most about the Royal Society MP Pairing scheme?

Dr Lorenzo Melchor - The whole experience. I have learnt the basis of how science policy in parliament and government works due to an outstanding seminar series, attending scientific committees and some House of Lords and Commons sessions. Shadowing Paul Burstow MP has been a brilliant opportunity to witness how evidence gathering can influence better decision making.

Dr Maria Vinci - I really enjoyed meeting the other scientists on the scheme and we all engaged in interesting discussions. It was great to be present at Prime Minister's Question Time … what a show!  I was interested in Professor Sir Mark Walport's (Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government and Head of Government Office for Science) report on the Science Annual Review and on how he is progressing with his job of advising the Government. It seemed to me that the topic of communicating science in Parliament is very different from what a scientist might think! Scientists and politicians use different languages and working on bridging that gap is fundamental.

Last but not least, I really enjoyed shadowing Paul Burstow. Paul is actively involved in promoting research and better care for dementia and we attended a meeting at the Royal College of Psychiatrists which was important to show continuous support of this cause.


What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned about science in parliament?

Dr Maria Vinci - It really surprised me how much science is present in Parliament. There are the Science and Technology Select Committees in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the Chief Scientific Advisers network and more… The UK Parliament is definitely one of the most organised in terms of having a defined structure that not only gives space to science in Parliament but also enables an efficient network between scientists and parliamentarians.

Dr Lorenzo Melchor - There is a real need for an open and fluid channel of communication between scientists and policy makers and I found it interesting to learn about the variety of networks in motion involving committees, learned societies, and science advisers.

Who were the most inspirational speakers?

Dr Lorenzo Melchor - The seminars gave me a better understanding of policy makers’ needs and how scientists could provide advice. I felt very inspired by Dr Chris Tyler (Director of POST) and Jill Rutter (Institute for Government) and the seminar from Dr Nick Green of the Royal Society was simply brilliant to realise how the most important learned society in the UK performs its science policy role. Professor David McKay (Department of Energy and Climate Change) also gave a magnificent practical seminar on his role as Chief Scientific Adviser.

Dr Maria Vinci - If I have to pick one, the speaker who really inspired me was Professor David McKay, the Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. He captured everyone’s attention in the room telling us about reducing carbon emission, reducing primary energy consumption, increasing the renewable fraction, saving the public money and most importantly about the 2050 Calculator (a user-friendly model that helps to calculate the UK emissions reduction pathway, and see the impact using real UK data). He gave a clear example of the job of a Chief Scientific Adviser in delivering a clear scientific analysis of all the possible options but that in the end it’s never the scientist that makes the decision but the policy makers!


What have you learnt that you can apply to your work here at the ICR?

Dr Maria Vinci - I learned that if we want to be more "visible" and get a stronger image, we should engage more with policy makers. I will be happy to support and get involved with any activities that directly engage with the groups, services or committees in Parliament.

Dr Lorenzo Melchor -  This experience has confirmed my belief that the impact of a scientist must not only be measured by the number of hours at the lab bench or in scientific publications, but also by the direct influence that their actions could have in our society. In my opinion, this should include a wide range of skills and activities from scientific manuscripts, to collaborations with industry, but also the outreach activities that help close the gap between scientists and public. I would like to contribute more actively. 


Have you got any plans to take this interest in policy forward?

Dr Lorenzo Melchor – I am the president and founder member of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom and I have already been involved in developing better networking opportunities with British and Spanish public and private institutions for the last couple of years. I will further explore my interests in science policy by subscribing to mailing lists to stay up to date with inquiries, looking at possible committees to get involved with, writing an article for the Science in Parliament magazine, and hopefully maintaining a long-lasting collaboration with Paul Burstow MP.

Dr Maria Vinci - My goal is to continue a dialogue Paul Burstow. As the local MP for Sutton and Cheam, with The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) right in his constituency, we have a common interest in making the most of this pairing scheme. I hope we can increase the visibility of the ICR and I will be happy to work with Paul Burstow anytime on issues within my expertise. I will be particularly interested in getting involved with the new proposal for a UK Evidence Information Service (EIS) which was presented by Natalia Lawrence on our second day in Westminster. The EIS aims to act as a rapid advisory service for the gathering and interpretation of scientific evidence.


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