Dr Sylvia McLain's 'Week in Westminster'
EPSRC Fellow Dr Sylvia McLain had the opportunity to see how civil servants grapple with complex science policy issues when she took part in the Royal Society’s ‘Week in Westminster’ at the beginning of the month.
She was paired with civil servant Dr Stewart Clarke, Science Advisor to DEFRA who works for Natural England, the government’s advisor on the natural environment.
Sylvia and fellow scientists paired with other civil servants spent the first two days occupied with a programme of activities including seminars and workshops focused on the use of evidence in policy, as well as a tour of parliament.
She spent the third day at DEFRA shadowing Stewart Clarke who was trained as an aquatic ecologist. There she heard about how civil servants use scientific expertise from both within and outside the organisation to provide information to parliament. ‘Their role is to inform but not advise,’ she comments.
DEFRA is actively involved with following up the Natural Environment White Paper in 2011 which outlines the government’s vision for the natural environment, looking at the future impact of plans and balancing the needs of agriculture versus conservation.
After the DEFRA visit, Sylvia and fellow scientists went on to the Zoological Society of London where they attended a debate entitled ‘The UK Natural Environment: evidence-based policy or policy-based evidence?’
Of the 39 scientists selected on the Royal Society pairing scheme, around half were paired with civil servants whilst the rest were paired with MPs. The scheme attracted a large number of applicants – over 120 – and those selected were across all career stages. Sylvia says she was really pleased to have the opportunity to participate.
She will host a reciprocal visit by Stewart Clarke in January when he will meet with undergraduates at her college, St Peter’s College, and talk to staff in the department. A common area of interest is impact - of funding or policy – and related activities such as the REF.
The scheme is definitely one that Sylvia would recommend. ‘It’s good for people who don’t know much about how government works but would like to know more,’ she says. ‘I came away understanding much better what the pressures are. With multiple interest groups to satisfy, scientific advisors have to try and get people to step back and look at the bigger picture and wider issues.’