THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

November 24, 2011

The relationship between politicians and academics can be rocky, particularly when governments appear to prefer policy-based evidence to evidence-based policy. But the Royal Society has been seeking to improve relations with a pairing scheme.

According to its website, the scheme "aims to help MPs and civil servants establish longstanding links with practising research scientists and to help research scientists understand political decision making and its associated pressures".

Under the scheme, Simon Gosling, lecturer in physical geography at the University of Nottingham, spent a week shadowing Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, and wrote about it on his page on Nottingham's website, The Geog Blog.

Dr Gosling, a specialist in the impact of climate change, was aptly paired with Mr Gardiner, who is Labour leader Ed Miliband's special envoy for climate change and the environment.

"We decided that we would investigate using some of my research and results to contribute towards the policy debate on global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change," writes Dr Gosling on Day 1. "This is policy-orientated research in its most direct form and something that I have been heavily involved with throughout my research career.

"To be discussing the role of climate change impact science directly with an MP as prominent as Barry was a real pleasure."

Dr Gosling candidly reveals the difficulties politicians face trying to effect policy change.

"Seeing first-hand the discussions that take place...has demonstrated the multitude of other issues that our leaders need to consider when forming national policy," he writes. "What is clear is that politicians have myriad other concerns to deal with when making decisions on environmental policy, and that the process is far from a straightforward consideration of the science case only."

Some of Dr Gosling's posts verge on star-struck awe - he speaks passionately about the "electric" atmosphere of Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament, and of the party leaders' "charisma" and wit. But he is convinced of MPs' sincerity in trying to use research findings to inform policy: "The UK government is devoted to supporting and producing leading international research to inform short-term and long-term decision-making on major issues" (http://bit.ly/vDmq8w).

Alice Jones, head of the school and family studies unit in the department of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, has also taken part in the Royal Society scheme. She is dismayed at "just how many scientists there are in government (not many) and in the civil service (not very many either)".

But she writes that she had finished her week in Westminster "full of admiration for the work that my MP [Joan Ruddock (Lewisham Deptford)] fits into her day.

"It is reassuring to discover that many members of Parliament are actively interested in science and research," she writes. "And that they are willing and able to enter into dialogue with scientists.

"This is not an easy time for many of us and concerns about funding seem to be pertinent to everyone. However, schemes like this help scientists to realise how they can most effectively have a say in scientific and policy strategy."

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