In the loop – what I learnt at the RSE Parliament Day

Posted by on Jun 16, 2011 in Policy | No Comments

A previous post sets out my motivations for attending the RSE Parliament Day. Here I’ll try to explain what I learnt. These views are clearly my own reflections and thoughts on the event. I also tweeted during the day using  as a hashtag.

The presenters on the day came from three worlds – there were politicians (Dr Elaine Murray MSP Labour, Alex Johnstone MSP Conservative and Paul Wheelhouse MSP SNP – sadly Willie Rennie MSP Liberal Democrats couldn’t join us Spread a bit thin these days, the Scottish Lib Dems), learned societies and organisations (Bristow Muldoon, RSE and RSC, Stephen Benn RSC, Mark Downs Society of Biology, Imran Khan Campaign for Science and Engineering) and the civil service (Professor Anne Glover, the Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland).

The variety of speakers meant we got a really good overview of what scientists and their representatives do to engage and influence politicians; what the politicians think about science and the role of scientific experts inside government. I”ll try to summarise the day into key messages from each represented group.

The overarching messages from the day:

 – politicians can’t be experts in all the areas they have to engage with, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t see the value of science. If they relate this science to the things they are concerned about, this value becomes self-evident so scientists need to understand wider issues and explain to policy makers how science contributes to a better solution or should be part of the decision making process. A quote from Stephen Benn ” We all know what we think is important. We need to relate this to what THEY (parliament) thinks is important and makes our issues relevant.”

 – policy decisions aren’t made on purely scientific evidence as demonstrated by two examples which came up several times during the day – nuclear power and genetically modified foods. Even if there is scientific evidence of the benefits of these technologies, politicians have to make decisions based on public attitudes, economic factors and the opposing views of other sectors. So, we can’t just complain that science evidence is being ignored, we need to think about how to influence these other elements. I don’t have an easy solution to this, but it was interesting to hear politicians explain that just because science says something is a good thing, it doesn’t mean it will just happen.

– the link between constituent and elected representative is very powerful, particularly in the Scottish Parliament given its size and ethos.  Paul Wheelhouse made this point, strongly supported by the other MSPs present. The implication seemed to be that it is easier to connect with an MSP than it might be to connect with an MP, which hasn’t been my personal experience. However, I think we are spoilt in the Borders by having Michael Moore as our MP. Certainly after seeing Paul talk I won’t hesitate to contact him if I think he needs to know something (yes, I’m one of his constituents). I have heard a different story from other researchers though, expressing frustration that their views aren’t listened to when they try to connect with government. I’d see the approach here as being the same I suggest when trying to get funding – understand what the person you are trying to engage (tap for money) wants to achieve, then present your message (proposal) in these terms.

– politicians like certainty and want to see evidence, facts and figures in the information presented to them. The messages need to be clear and unambiguous. Interesting meeting of worlds here given that science is about uncertainty, debate and defending a position. Stephen Benn describe watching two parties use information from a report he produced used on opposing sides of an argument. Politicians need a different communication style to the one used to address academic peers.

The main message from RSE, RSC and SB was that scientists have more influence if they can speak with a single voice. Perhaps unsurprising that the professional bodies would say that, given that they are an obvious channel for single messages…but they made the case well. They can devote time, resources and energy into developing links with parliaments, understanding the agendas, pulling together tens of thousands of voices from their memberships and delivering the messages in the most effective way. The individual scientist needs to engage with the society to contribute to the messages being produced. As Mark Downs (SB) said “make your learned society deliver what you want”. 

Two mechanisms that you can use: the RSC Parliamentary Links Scheme and the Society of Biology science policy newsletter 

All those engaged with politics stressed the importance of building relationships over time, supporting those in government (and the media) to help them achieve what they want to achieve. In order to be helpful, you need to understand what, when and how they need our information and insights. No doubt to some this will seem machiavellian and sinister, but that wasn’t the spirit in which it was presented. Everything in life is about people, building relationships with them is key.

Imran Khan from CASE talked about his campaigning for science using traditional and social media. His strongest message was to talk to journalists and he gave several examples of how CASE have used the media to “encourage” activity from parliament and government. He gave the same message about the media as we had heard about politicians – get the know them, understand what they want and deliver your messages on these terms. Accept that important ≠ newsworthy and present your messages as things that help journalists and editors achieve what they want – more sales, more readers, more viewers, more influence.

He also talked about using influence to achieve your ends – illustrated by the CASE approach of distinguished signatories for their letters and reports. Nothing like a Nobel Prize Winner to add a bit of oomph and credibility to a message. ANother strategy is to “arm” politicians with the facts and information they need to make certain arguments, describing the success of CASE on two key issues – protecting the science budget and changing immigration policy – about being partly down to media engagement and partly down to providing case studies, stories and figures which showed the inconsistency of these policies with wider government objectives. Very canny man…

The day closed with a great presentation from Anne Glover. Her role as Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland is to further enhance Scotland’s reputation as a science nation and she presented us with her insights into how policy is formed. This is kindly described as “evolutionary” (messy and complicated if you prefer)`echoing the comments heard earlier from MSPs about the competing and opposing opinions that they try to take into account. She gave us some, by now familiar, perspectives on what are the main challenges – the different time scale that elected representatives operate in, the need for fact and clear messages, the need for mutual trust and respect and the differences in language used by scientists and politicians. 

She encouraged the scientists in the room to look at the problems facing the government and think of solutions. She also encouraged direct contact with her, citing the post-doctoral researcher who emailed her during the first Eyjafjallajökull eruption offering advice  – she contacted him during the recent ash cloud disruptions and used his knowledge directly.


Some final messages from the day –


improve communication, using current political concerns as “hooks” to introduce the validity of your work

combine messages with other scientists to put forward a consistent opinion

get to know people before you need to know them – politicians, societies and journalists

understand the issues that government is thinking about


So, definitely worth a day of my time and I’ve met some really interesting people and feel much more comfortable and confident about the reception I will get if and when I need to engage the political world. Thanks to the RSE, in particular Dr Caroline Wallace for getting people together.

My motivation for attending was as part of my learning about impact. The pathway to impact isn’t easy or straightforward, as described by Richard Jones in his blog, but worth walking.


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