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Changing Perceptions


If you think scientists get bad press these days, spare a thought for a group that has been taking the flak for far longer--yes, I'm talking about our politicians. Relations between Britain's scientists and their members of Parliament (MPs) probably reached an all-time low at the height of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) affair, when it seemed that ministers were intent on passing the buck to researchers '"incapable"' of giving a straight answer to the policy makers' questions. But a new scheme set up by the U.K.'s elite science academy, the Royal Society--in response to the crisis in public confidence in science triggered by issues such as BSE, genetically modified (GM) organisms, and cloning--is set to build bridges between politicians and scientists. Judging by the experience of two researchers who took part in the Royal Society's MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme in 2002, this approach seems to be having the desired effect.

"They're incredibly hard-working, committed people," says Nicky Evans, a postdoc at Lancaster University, adding that "Sound bites on the news are not reflective of what goes on day to day." Scientists who volunteer to take part in the scheme are paired with an MP, usually from the scientist's area. Evans's "twin" is Hilton Dawson, MP for Lancaster and Wyre--the university lies within his constituency. The researchers spend a week at Westminster shadowing their MP and also some time with the MP during his or her constituency work. But this is a two-way exchange, so the MPs also spend a day in the lab with their researchers.

Betty Williams, MP for Conwy, may be one of the vast majority of MPs with no scientific background, but when she visited the lab of her twin, Chris Freeman, he soon had her hard at work at the bench carrying out an enzyme experiment. Until recently a Royal Society University Research Fellow, Freeman now has a permanent position at the University of Wales in Bangor. His interest is in peat wetlands, which contain as much CO2 as can be found in the entire atmosphere. The policy interest in terms of the global carbon cycle is obvious, although until just a few years ago, Freeman considered his work to be "very obscure." Working in a field with direct policy applications is not a prerequisite for joining the scheme, however.

Betty Williams, MP, comes to grips with science in Chris Freeman's lab at the University of Wales, Bangor.

Freeman has been impressed by Williams's "very demanding" workload. She has been keen to give him insights into her constituency work, inviting him to join her on a visit to a local school, for example. But he's also pleased to have been able to demonstrate to her "some of the pressures involved in being a scientist." He thinks that "MPs are not as aware as they should be" of many aspects of a researcher's life, such as the amount of time spent writing grant proposals.

The scientists' week at Westminster kicked off with an overview of how the parliamentary system works, with seminars from the Hansard Society about parliamentary proceedings, as well from groups that deal specifically with science policy--the House of Commonsand House of Lords select committees, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. Evans explains that she spent the following two-and-a-half days seeing just what a politician's life involves, sitting in on meetings with local business people, watching debates from the gallery of the House, and spending time in the office where Dawson deals with an astonishing range of queries from constituents. In addition, she prepared a briefing for him on GM crops, "something he felt he should know a little more about."

Indeed, one of the aims of the scheme is to help MPs build up a network of scientific contacts that they can approach when they need an insider's view of a science policy issue. Freeman has "developed so much respect [for Williams], after seeing how hard she works, that I would go out of my way to give her that advice" in the future. And the scientists also feel much more confident about bringing issues of concern to the attention of policy makers as a result of their experience. Freeman believes that a big advantage for him has been finding out about the "ways in which scientists can feed into the parliamentary system." He has started building his own network, so that if there is an issue he wants to raise, he now knows whom to contact. Similarly, for Evans, "if I was concerned about something, [Dawson] would be my first point of contact."

Both Evans and Freeman are interested in communicating the results of their research to audiences outside the lab and think it's an important part of any scientist's job. Being able to demonstrate such a commitment is essential if you're interested in taking part, says Helen Pilcher, who runs the twinning scheme on behalf of the Royal Society. Above all, she is looking for "young, enthusiastic researchers--it doesn't matter what discipline" to join in. The scheme is growing--it involved six pairs in its first year and 14 in 2002; the Royal Society would like to extend it to include pairings with members of the regional assemblies, House of Lords, and European Parliament--so there should be even more opportunities in the future.

Meanwhile, has the experience had an impact on our scientists' career ambitions? Although Evans is planning to continue in research, she also wants to take a part-time science-communication course. She hadn't thought about communicating with policy makers before getting involved with the pairing scheme, but she now considers that "it would be a really interesting area to work in," providing the opportunity "to have some small impact on issues [that] you really care about." As for Freeman, he admits that he might actually consider trying to become an MP himself. The scheme highlighted for him "a need for more scientists in Parliament," and not only is it a "fascinating life," but "you have the possibility of doing good for society in general."

If you would like to be involved in the pairing scheme in 2003, please contact Daisy Thomas at the Royal Society, E-mail:, Tel: 020 7451 2566, to express your interest. She will contact you later in the year with details on how to make a formal application.