Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Frederick Soddy

Last week I went to a Royal Society of Chemistry lecture about Frederick Soddy, who had been at Aberystwyth in 1894 and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1921 for his discovery of isotopes. The speaker was Dr Alun Price. I was fascinated by this diagram that Soddy showed to the British Association meeting in Birmingham in 1913, depicting what he knew about the radioactive decay of 3 elements (actinium, uranium, thorium). At first - what an untidy looking diagram! But then it does show what he knew at the time in an organised way, and tells the story far better than a paragraph of words. He now has a uranium compound named after him: Soddyite.

Apart from his fantastic work in chemistry, he also wrote poetry and wrote books about economics. One of the quotes given in the talk was: "The man who said that it was not possible to fool all the public all of the time was fortunately quite ignorant of the methods of modern banking" (Frederick Soddy, 1924).

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Shadowing my MP: constantly switching topics

For two days during the Royal Society MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme I shadowed my MP. He's Mark Williams, the MP for my constituency, Ceredigion. His interests are mostly in Welsh issues, human rights issues, education issues, and general matters raised by his constituents, which are not usually science issues. However the shadowing experience was certainly an eye-opener for me.

Parliament sits from Mon-Thurs and then on Friday the MPs travel back to their constituencies and have surgeries, meet the public, attend events, open buildings, etc. Sometimes they do this at weekends too. Then back to Westminster during the week. While at Westminster it seems to be a hectic run of meetings and debates, and these constantly switch from one topic to the next. How do they do that?

On Thursday 3rd November we started with a press conference about Camp Ashraf in Iraq (a refugee camp for Iranians that the mass media seems to be ignoring for some reason, but that would be another post). After this was a session in the Commons Chamber, for Urgent Questions: the raising of anything and everything that MPs think there's a pressing need to ask for a debate about. Questions ranged from traffic problems in Bradford to student visas, metal theft, solar panel feed-in tariffs and the VAT threshold for micro businesses. After this, quickly back to the office to finish preparing a speech for the afternoon's debate on the Silk Commission which will be set up to look at Welsh Devolution issues. I watched part of this debate (which was surprisingly interesting) and then mid-afternoon moved to Westminster Hall to catch part of a debate about a report on shale gas extraction and 'fracking'.

As an MP, it's not possible to be an expert in all of these areas. It's not possible for them to have time to be an expert. It looked as if it was hardly possible to have time to grab a sandwich at lunch! So they have to rely on their office-researchers, on the information packs provided by POST and other parliamentary bodies, and on the information they receive from their constituents and the public. And from this information they have to raise topics for discussion, join in with informed debate on a huge range of issues and then be able to vote on detailed legislation, which provides the laws by which we all live. I found this idea somewhat scary.

Openness: parliament and academia

One thing I was particularly struck by was how open most of the workings of Parliament were. Members of the public can sit in the galleries to watch the debates in the Houses of Commons and Lords, and in Westminster Hall. The debates are televised and fully minuted in Hansard, with minutes online by 6am the next day. Wouldn't it be amazing if we did science in this way, with all of our operations televised and fully minuted for inspection! That really would be the ideal of Open Science.

Not only that, but members of the public can sit in on most select committee meetings, and watch the proceedings. The science equivalent would be to have a cordon at one end of your lab and to allow the public free access to come and go at any time as long as they sit behind the cordon. And the committee reports are all made publicly available on their websites. Not publicly available in some journal that you might not have access to or have to pay $30 per report for, but freely available. Science still has a long way to go to become this freely available.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

So how can scientists get involved in the use of science in the UK Parliament?

During the MP/Scientist pairing scheme we learned about several of the bodies involved in making sure science is used in Parliament.

One of those was the Science and Technology Select Committee which has the job of scrutinising institutions or policies. It produces reports with recommendations, to which Government has to respond. For example, a report on peer review in scientific publications or a report on practical experiments in school science lessons.

Another is the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which prepares information notes and packs for the members of parliament about the topics that they will be discussing and debating within the current term of Parliament. These reports can be browsed online, such as this report on women in science, engineering and technology. The reports aim to be party-neutral and fact-based (how they can do this, I don't know, when, as the saying goes, there are "lies, damned lies and statistics"). MPs will then use facts and figures from these reports in their debates.

And a third is the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), which seems to do everything else, from providing emergency response information (e.g. about flu pandemics or volcanic ash clouds), to providing views about the long term (what will life be like 20 years from now? what will we need to legislate about?). There are still more organisations (e.g. research councils, and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee) and these are listed in this guide (which has a strangely unofficial-looking URL).

So there are lots of civil servants involved, and lots of committees. When these committees need to make reports, they invite expert opinion. They ask the learned societies (eg Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Academy of Engineering, etc.) to suggest experts. They ask the research councils to suggest experts. They will also consider evidence submitted by scientists-at-large: if you have an expertise in an area they are investigating then you can make yourself known to them. After gathering written and oral evidence, they compile a report.

How do we, as scientists, know what's going to be discussed in Parliament in order to make ourselves known at the right time, to provide such evidence? That's not so easy. We can try to keep track of all the websites or feeds of the above committees. But really, we could do with having subject specific bodies such as the BCS, RAEng, RCS, etc aggregate that sort of information and push it out to us.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Day 3 in Westminster

So, today I've been to a Science and Technology Select Committee meeting asking questions about the Met Office. The public are welcome to sit in on these meetings, and there were 4 or 5 rows of chairs at the back of the room for this purpose. MPs and civil servants sit around a horseshoe-shaped table, interviewing expert witnesses who sit in a line across the end of the horseshoe. In this case they were interviewing the chiefs of the Met Office. The questions were mostly read from a script, and the aim was to obtain more information on whether the Met Office is doing what it should be doing as a public service, what could be improved, what (supercomputer) investments were needed and where the money for that might come from. They asked about their collaborations - who do they collaborate with, how are the relationships with private sector and academia and how much more could be done. They asked about how they were planning to make their data more accessible: to the academics, to businesses and to the public (and the problem of how to communicate uncertainty to the public). They asked a whole range of diverse questions, which the Met Office seemed to answer easily, and it felt like they had very little real opposition from the panel. That might be because the Met Office does do an excellent job, it might be because the panel didn't know how to ask probing questions about the supercomputing resources necessary (or understand the answers they might get), or simply because that wasn't in their remit, I don't know.

How do MPs learn enough about a subject to be able to conduct Select Committee interviews, to debate an issue in the Commons, or to make an informed choice whether to vote aye or no to a Bill? This is what I'm curious to find out. And then, how can the scientific community best help them to make such informed choices when they need that advice?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Day 2 in Westminster

At the end of the second day of the Week in Westminster for the Royal Society MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme, we have had an introduction to all the committees and structures involved in science and technology that operate to help the government make policy. I have been amazed to find out how little I actually knew about how government worked. We've discussed issues such as how Select Committees scrutinise government policies (and how the Select Committees from the House of Lords and the House of Commons differ in what they investigate), how scientific advice is provided in emergency situations, the Foresight team that has to report on issues that might arise far ahead in the future, and the role of John Beddington, the chief scientific advisor.

One question we were asked today, which I found very interesting, was to imagine being the people responsible for reviewing the use of science and engineering in government departments. What processes, structures and resources would you want a department have in place to ensure its science and analytical activities are robust and effective? If you were reviewing a department (for example, the Department of Education), what would you want them to demonstrate in order to convince you that they were effectively using science to guide their policy-making?

Tomorrow I'll be attending a meeting of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (they'll be discussing the Met Office) and then shadowing my constituency MP, Mark Williams to find out what a day in his life in Westminster is like.