Dr Siân de Bell, a member of the Innovate UK project team, was awarded the opportunity to spend two days in Westminster shadowing a member of Parliament, the scheme is supported by the British Ecological Society.
In October 2018, I spent two days shadowing Lord Teverson, chair of the EU Energy and Environment subcommittee, in Westminster. Both of the days were full: there was an EU Energy and Environment subcommittee meeting with Michael Gove and an EU committee meeting, both of which had pre-meeting briefings, along with a select committee hearing on chemical regulations. There was also some media and outreach (a telephone interview and video clip for Twitter), a Grand Committee hearing on energy and carbon reporting by businesses, questions in the House of Lords, a Liberal Democrat party meeting, a breakfast meeting on green finance, and lobbying meetings.
I did not know much about the Lords before this experience so it was really interesting gaining an insight into how the House works. The fact that Lords do not have constituents and therefore do not have to work to the electoral cycle in the same way as the Commons gives them more time and the opportunity to really scrutinise legislation.
Research into policy
During my placement, I also had the opportunity to learn about the process of policy-making more generally. Seeing day to day life in the policy world has helped me understand how it works and made me consider how I talk about my research.
Committee meetings cover a huge variety of topics, often within one session. I was struck by how well-chaired and efficient they were (maybe we have something to learn in academia!) but this does mean that decisions are made quickly. As in different disciplines in academia, the policy world also has its own language. Both of these points are important to consider when thinking about communicating research to policymakers.
If you want to communicate general evidence, then select committees and organisations such as the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) issue calls for evidence. These give opportunities to submit written evidence and in some cases speak to a committee on a topic. It might also be worth approaching policy advisors and analysts. They conduct an enormous amount of work behind the scenes and have insight into what is needed and relevant.
Lobbying is used to try and make specific changes to policy such as an amendment to a bill. Whilst research might inform these amendments, they are usually brought forward by organisations with a specific interest rather than individuals.
And what about Brexit?
The big question! In the course of a one-hour meeting with Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, on the possibility of a no deal exit, topics ranged from fishing quotas, to plant passports, to live animal exports, to travel for pets. Other meetings I attended highlighted issues which I would not have known existed, let alone identified as problems. For example, laws on data ownership mean there are databases on the environmental and health impacts of chemicals which the UK will not be able to access after leaving the EU. There is so much uncertainty but everybody I saw was working incredibly hard to find solutions to the challenges which will result from any Brexit scenario.