This article is Part III of III of our POST interview series.
Eloise Johnston recently spoke with Dr Abbi Hobbs from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) in London, which provides Parliament with an independent, accessible and balanced analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology.
In this final section of the interview, we consider the role scientists should have in governing bodies, and Dr Hobbs offers advice to young scientists who want their research to have a real impact on society.
theGIST: In recent years it has been noted that scientists are widely underrepresented in the makeup of parliaments around the world, including the UK; they are overwhelmingly staffed by people with background in law or economics. Do you think if the UK Parliament had more scientists at its core then it may have the potential to view public policy from a more analytical and methodical perspective?
Dr Hobbs: This was quite a debate about a year ago and there were quite a lot of things being written about this. My personal perspective would be that there are a few different aspects to this. One is that when people cite that there are hardly any scientists in Parliament, it depends on what you class as a scientist. So are you restricting this to people with a PhD in a natural science discipline? Or do you include people with undergraduate experience within any of the scientific disciplines, including social science? As if the latter, then the pool vastly increases. I think that the important issue here is to consider what experience you really need in order to be able to understand the scientific method and see the value of different types of scientific evidence – alongside other forms of evidence – within the policy process.
Second is whether we are referring to Members – MPs and Peers – or to the staff that support their work. There is great value in having well-renowned practising scientists becoming politicians, so that expertise is at hand. But I don’t think you exclusively need that to make sure that scientific evidence can be used where it is appropriate. To enable this, I think it is important that you have mechanisms within an institution to support people where research isn’t their prime expertise, to make sure they have access to accessible information to support them in their decision making, rather than making sure they all understand the science as a scientists would. Part of achieving this is to have an institutional culture where Members and staff understand the value of research and where it can support them in their work.
theGIST: What is your advice is for young scientists who want their research to make a real impact upon society?
Dr Hobbs: I think this question is really important. Some things that can help are really trying to know your field and where you fit within it. A lot of PhDs can be really specialist because it’s necessary in order for people to get to that level of their career and push the boundaries of knowledge further. But you can also end up with quite a narrow view of how you fit in the bigger picture if you’re working on a narrow research question for three or four years.
It’s crucial to think: how does my work that fit in a broader picture? If you can articulate your research to your friends down in the pub and your family then you’re probably doing a really good job!
I also think that it’s really important to respect all the disciplines and different sectors as well. I feel that some academic disciplines or some institutions can slightly encourage students to be arrogant within their own fields to assume that’s where all the answers come from, and that it’s the only way of looking at the problem. Whereas from a broader societal perspective, there are lots of different ways at looking a problem and there are lots of different answers to it, and you need to try and bring all those together in a way that people can listen to and understand each other and then try and come up with joint solutions to it. It could be the big challenges like obesity where the answers are going to come from academics, policy makers, industry and the voluntary sector all working together.
Ultimately, if you are genuinely interested and if you think what you’re doing is important, look for ways that you can be heard. We try and encourage academics at any stage of their careers to submit to relevant Select Committee Inquiries – a key part of Parliament’s scrutiny work where cross-party groups of MPs or Lords check the work of Government or look at specialist subjects. When the Select Committees are reconstituted in the new Parliament, a list of all the Committee’s accepting evidence is available here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/inquiries-a-z/current-open-calls-for-evidence/
Anyone can write in and suggest what they believe to be important issues for parliamentarians to consider. This process of collecting evidence is crucial, as unless people write in and tell Members what they know from their research, or from personal experience, it generally won’t be taken into account.
So I would encourage all young researchers to look for different ways to feed their work in. And not to feel feel like they have to be at a particular point in their career – or be really senior – to have anything worthwhile to say. If you’ve studied an area for three or four years that’s an awful lot of insight and knowledge that you’ve got – so do feel empowered to contribute to the debate!
Dr Hobbs, thank you very much for taking the time to talk about POST, science and evidence in politics for theGIST!
This article was specialist edited by Becky Douglas and copy edited by Mary Kristen Layne.