The POST: What is it? Why is it there? And where does it fit in with UK science and politics?
This article is Part I of III of our POST interview series.
I 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.
If you’re interested in learning first-hand about POST’s role in Parliament, the relationship between science and politics, the peer review process, and the importance of young scientists getting involved and making their research count, check out the highlights of our discussion in the next three articles for theGIST.
theGIST: Thanks very much for chatting to theGIST Dr Hobbs. To kick things off, I was wondering if you could explain the role of POST and how it is organised?
Dr Hobbs: POST is Parliament’s in-house source of scientific advice. Broadly speaking, our role is to support parliamentarians in scrutinising the work of Government, by providing them with balanced and accessible overviews of research from across the natural, physical and social sciences, engineering and technology – placing the findings in a policy context for parliamentary use. So we take ‘science and technology’ to be understood quite broadly – all of the research disciplines that can support MPs and Peers to do their work, and not just the natural sciences.
With regards to structure and organisation, POST is an office of both Houses of Parliament, overseen by a Board of MPs, Peers and external experts. It has four sections: biological sciences and health, environment and energy, physical sciences and ICT, and, from about 18 months ago, social sciences.
A lot of our work is focused on producing 4-page written briefings called ‘POSTnotes’, which are publicly available on the POST website. We also do a lot of work for select committees, which is sometimes made publicly available but sometimes not; it depends on the purpose of it. POST also holds events to connect parliamentarians to leading experts from the research community and other sectors, including government, the third sector and business.
theGIST: So what has been going on at POST so far this year?
Dr Hobbs: Because of the General Election in May, the work of Parliament was wrapping up and winding down a bit, because MPs were looking to get back to their constituencies to get campaigning to get re-elected. As Parliament was dissolved at the end of March, we were focusing on what needed to be done while the members weren’t there in the Commons, which is essentially how can we best support them when they return and the new MPs arrive. As a result there’s a lot of work going on around on induction and training for new Members.
We have also been busy undertaking an extensive programme of horizon scanning. The primary focus will be on ‘trends’ – well-established directional changes in society, technology, the environment, economics and politics. This is being used to inform a briefing that will reflect some of the main issues that will face the incoming new Parliament, as well as a series of ‘Trends in…’ POSTnotes, which will analyse the intersection between the identified trends and major policy areas. So, ultimately, we’re have been thinking about the key things that are going to come up that need attention early on.
We do this so that when they come up in six months’ or a year’s time, we have some work ready to give to them because our turnaround isn’t that quick: it takes a while to review a lot of literature and to go through the peer review process.
theGIST: You’ve explained that research is central to the work POST does for Parliament. Can you tell us some more about the areas you have been focusing on?
Dr Hobbs: I have been working on a POSTnote on Measuring living standards 1 which was recently published. We decided to explore this area because it keeps coming up in political debates. It looked at the research on living standards – including how different measures are put together – the difference between relative and absolute measures – and things like that. I’m also supervising a Fellow doing a POSTnote on Trends in political participation, which will be published in May.
There’s also work going on at POST around the minimum age of criminal responsibility; sugar; obesity; disorders of consciousness; broadband capacity; commercial space; energy storage; novel food production; herbicide resistance; future of natural gas – and other areas – it’s always quite varied what we’ve got going on!
theGIST: How important is the peer review process you mentioned before at POST?
Dr Hobbs: The process of peer review is absolutely central to what we do. With all the POSTnotes you see on the website, the process for each of them to start with is a period of literature review, including academic literature, as well as grey literature 2, to try and gain a broad picture of who is involved in an area, and what the main issues may be.
After that we or the Fellows undertake a series of interviews or meetings with anywhere between 15-30 stakeholders drawn from across government, academia, the third sector and industry, to check that we’re not missing anything, and to point us to the key issues and things that would not be written in the literature anyway. So it’s an iterative process whereby you keep going back to the literature.
The draft briefing is then internally reviewed by one of the staff members from each of the sections of POST, and often other internal colleagues, to make sure that everyone understands what we’ve written and that it’s clear and accessible, and follows the style guide that we have in place. It then goes out to external peer review to all of the people that we have interviewed and often some more to check that it is balanced and accurate. So typically you get anywhere between 15 – 30 sets of conflicting comments on your work! Once all these have been addressed, it then goes to POST’s Director for a final thorough edit and sign off.
In the next article, Dr Hobbs and I talk about Dr Hobbs’s background and her work in the social science department of POST, the relationship between POST and the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment, and the challenges to research in a demanding political context.
This article was specialist edited by Becky Douglas and copy edited by Graham Kerr.