December 3, 2013, by Lindsay Brooke

Scientists go behind the scenes at Westminster

A physicist who studies the building blocks of matter and a cosmologist who delves into the evolution of the universe are spending a week at Westminster to find out how government works. They are leaving their lab and equations behind to discover how science policy is formed and to gain an understanding of the working life of a politician.

Professor Philip Moriarty and Dr Clare Burrage are taking part in the Royal Society’s ‘Pairing Scheme’. They have been paired with Lilian Greenwood, the MP for Nottingham South, who is a regular visitor to The University of Nottingham.

Over 200 scientists have taken part in this scheme since it was launched in 2001. Click here to find out what Professor Moriarty and Dr Burrage want from this four day visit.

So what’s the latest? Here are their thoughts after their first day (Monday).

Dr Burrage

“We had a tour around the Palace of Westminster this morning and I was amazed at just how beautiful the building is. I don’t think that comes across in any of the photos or images you see on TV.

The afternoon was a series of talks on science in parliament. I came away with the feeling that while policy makers and scientists do want to talk to each other, and while there’s a huge amount of good will on both sides, we have very different goals and we almost speak a different language.  It’s a bit of a shock as a scientist to hear someone talk about ‘evidence’ and mean both facts and opinions.

Professor Moriarty

“Started off with a fascinating tour of the (rather intimidating) Houses of Parliament.  Found out where the expression “Toe the line” comes from; learned that the bishops in the HoL traditionally get arm-rests to stop them falling over while under the influence; and enjoyed the ‘juxtaposition’ of the statues of Atlee and Thatcher in the Members’ Lobby.

“Particularly enjoyed the contributions of Robert Winston and Alan Malcolm to the discussions of science in parliament this afternoon – refreshingly honest (even though I can’t say I agree with Lord Winston on the matter of the impact agenda!).

“It’s a bit of a shock as a scientist to hear someone talk about ‘evidence’ and mean both facts and opinions. I’ll second this!”

The Royal Society ‘Pairing Scheme’

The Royal Society pairing scheme aims to build bridges between some of our best research scientists and parliamentarians and civil servants.

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society said: “We live in a world facing increasing challenges that can only be addressed with a clear understanding of science.  From climate change to influenza outbreaks, GM food to nuclear power, our MPs have to make decisions about complex issues that will affect the lives of all those in the UK and, in many cases, more widely throughout the world.  This means that MPs and scientists have a responsibility to engage with each other to get the best possible scientific advice into public policy making.

I know many parliamentarians and scientists who have gained from the scheme, and the shaping of public policy can only improve over time as these relationships continue to grow.”



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