Don's diray: Scientist and MP trade places

January 25, 2002

Constituency day

I am sitting in the staff room of a primary school in Chandler's Ford in Hampshire. The staff and governors are rushing around because it's an open day and local Liberal Democrat MP Sandra Gidley is coming to visit.

I am shadowing Sandra as part of the Royal Society's MP pairing scheme, which allows young scientists who are funded by the Royal Society to experience what life is like for an MP.

Sandra arrives at 9.30am. We trek around the school looking in classrooms and at computers, and get roped into participating in a hand-bell recital.

Then it's outside for a photo and off to the constituency office. After a pile of paperwork and a meeting to discuss some local youth problems, we're off again, this time to the new Dell for a meeting with the council, fire officers, police and civil servants about safety in Southampton.

Laboratory day

Sandra is coming to visit me in the department, but I am also looking after a visiting professor from the University of California, Berkeley. Should I put her to work making some new molecules? No, safety problems there. Let her watch me write a grant proposal? Not the most interesting way to spend the day.

Sandra arrives and I decide on a tour. After a morning of mass spectrometers, X-ray diffractometers and graduate students, we have lunch with our American visitor, who is most impressed that an MP would come to a chemistry department. "This would never happen in California!"

Westminster week
Monday

It's raining and I'm early, standing outside Portcullis House on the banks of the Thames. The six other Royal Society research fellows arrive, and we venture in through tight security.

Inside, there are LCD screens everywhere - this is the annunciator system, which allows MPs and lords to see what is going on in their debating chambers.

We head upstairs for coffee and a seminar on how Parliament works and the role of MPs, then we're off to a meeting of the parliamentary and scientific committee. The first speaker is the director-general of the research councils - I'd better be on my best behaviour.

Tuesday

Shadowing Sandra again. We're sitting in the offices of BT.gov, where she is trialling a Blackberry (a portable email device very popular in North America).

Then we head back to Portcullis House for a meeting about the use of diagnostic tests in medicine.

After lunch, we make our way into the Commons chamber for health questions (Sandra is part of the Lib Dems' health team). Alan Milburn and his ministers are being grilled, but the House doesn't fill up until MPs start piling in for a debate on Railtrack.

We leave, and it's non-stop activity as we make our way to a meeting with the Lib Dem health team and then on to University College London for a meeting with some Lib Dem students.

Wednesday

We attend a meeting with the people who provide MPs and lords with scientific information: the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (Post), the librarians and the clerks from the Lords and Commons scientific select committees. Post produces its own publications to brief MPs on current issues (biological weapons are a hot topic).

After lunch I help Sandra's researcher with some online research into a number of pharmaceutical and health issues.

Thursday

The last day. We attend a meeting with three MPs with particular interests in the science agenda.

Ian Gibson chairs the session. We talk about how science is perceived in the media, how we can counter its current negative image, and how great it would be if we could persuade MPs to think scientifically.

Then we walk to the Royal Society for lunch and a debrief. This is the first time the Royal Society has run this scheme. Was it useful? Yes - it certainly changed the way I think about Parliament and government.


Phil Gale is a Royal Society university research fellow and honorary lecturer at the department of chemistry, University of Southampton.

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