Building bridges between Westminster and science

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Since 2001, the Royal Society has run the Parliamentary Pairing scheme, enabling scientists and parliamentarians – either MPs or civil servants – to shadow each other at work. The aim of the scheme is to promote greater understanding between the science community and those who make the decisions that affect them.

One of the Royal Statistical Society’s statistical ambassadors, Liberty Vittert (pictured, left), took part in the scheme this year. Liberty is Mitchell lecturer in statistics at the University of Glasgow, and spent a week in London back in December 2016. For two days she shadowed her local MP Patrick Grady (also pictured), the Scottish National Party’s MP for Glasgow North. Prior to that she attended a series of preparatory talks for the scientists participating in the Parliamentary Pairing scheme, run by the Royal Society, to explain how parliament works and where opportunities for influencing policymaking exist.

Liberty was given a unique opportunity to accompany her MP Patrick Grady as he attended parliamentary debates in the House of Commons as well as meetings and briefings in and around Westminster. ‘I honestly had the greatest time,’ she says of her experience. ‘He [Grady] took me to everything, he included me in everything, he could not possibly have been nicer or more excited about doing this.’

What struck Liberty the most about her experience was how busy an MP’s life is. ‘It was exhausting’ she said. ‘He was here and there, going to every possible meeting.’ Liberty also saw, first hand, the challenges MPs face in gaining a clear picture of what is going on around them. ‘What I saw was how difficult a job it is to try and communicate to them the importance of science,’ she said. ‘They’re running around all day and to get them to actually sit down and listen is hard because they’re really busy doing other things.’

Liberty also saw how important a role the media plays in informing MPs. ‘It seems that a lot of MPs get their information from the morning newspaper, just like everybody else does,’ she said. However, there are disadvantages to that if stories are not reported accurately. ‘It’s very easy for things to become misconstrued in the media,’ Liberty acknowledges. ‘I’ve seen it about some of my own research - where it’s not right. You can’t always expect a reporter to understand statistics, and they have different priorities; they’re also trying to sell headlines, understandably. So it’s very important that there’s a strong connection between statisticians and the media to make sure that everything that’s going out is very clear.’

However, she also recognises that the science community itself has a role to play. During her time shadowing Patrick’s team, Liberty attended an inspiring breakfast roundtable discussion about Denghi fever. ‘The group that held it did a fabulous job of bringing it to a level where anybody within twenty minutes could understand the challenges and what parliament would be able to do,’ she said.

‘You can’t expect MPs to go and read academic papers because frankly, I’m sure I wouldn’t understand a paper on Denghi fever. But when we take an active role in going to parliament and explaining the issues that are important to us – creating a scientific dialogue - then we can really get somewhere. Because I saw that they are willing to listen. But they’re not scientists, that’s the whole point.’

Liberty’s research is currently focused around facial shape analysis, which aims to help measure the success of facial reconstruction surgery following disfigurement by disease or injury. However, much of her work also focuses on outreach work and teaching and she aims to show all of that to Patrick Grady when it is his turn to shadow her at Glasgow University in May this year. ‘I want to make sure he gets the real picture of what’s going on here, just as he gave me a real overall picture of what he does in parliament,’ she says. ‘It’s really important for him to know what’s going on at our school, and the College of Science and Engineering in general.’

Liberty believes that the pairing scheme brings a greater understanding between the science and parliamentary communities. ‘We can’t make any change unless we understand what is going on,’ she says. ‘You can say to me: ‘You need to do this’ and I might say, ‘I can’t’. And vice versa. But when we all understand how everyone works, we know what to ask of each other and what is possible.’

The Royal Society is now seeking scientists to take part in next year’s Parliamentary Pairing scheme – details on the Royal Society website.

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