Stepping into science policy

In April I’ll be hanging up the lab coat to spend three months as an intern at the Science and Technology Select Committee (S+T committee) in Westminster. Truthfully, I don’t own or even use a lab coat, so I’ll be turning off MATLAB and packing my bags and moving to London.

select committee

Whilst I would call myself politically aware, I admit that I wasn’t overly familiar with the exact workings of a Select Committee until a few months ago. I am already pondering a few future policy-based blog posts and some may reference the work I will be getting up to in Westminster. So preemptively I thought I’d take the time to explain the role of Select Committees and the role of the S+T Committee.

First port of call is the parliament.gov website, and here Select Committees are defined as:

“Select Committees work in both Houses. They check and report on areas ranging from the work of government departments to economic affairs. The results of these inquiries are public and many require a response from the government.”

Set up in 1979, Commons Select Committees are cross-party groups of backbench MPs, led by a chairman or chairwoman. There is a committee for each governmental department e.g. Foreign Affairs, Health and Defence Select all have Select Committees.

Famous enquiries

Russell Brand at the Home Affairs select committee
Russell Brand at the Home Affairs select committee

My familiarity with the workings of Select Committees mainly came from the headline grabbers. News International and phone hacking may ring some bells; these revelations led to a Commons inquiry concerning phone hacking by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Even the famous and notorious are not exempt from answering to a committee and household names such as Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch, Bob Diamond and even Russell Brand have all appeared in front of a Select Committee.

I never actually realised how often these enquiries do hit the headlines. Looking carefully to the wording on the news, you see articles saying things like ‘MPs have urged’, ‘suggested by a group of MPs’, these are all likely reporting on a Select Committee inquiry. Other favoured press phrases to keep an eye out for are: ‘MPs have warned’, ‘MPs have said’ and so on.

Science and Technology Select Committee

I’ll be off interning for the Commons S+T Select Committee who were formed

“to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence”.

The committee scrutinises the work of Government Office for Science (GO-Science) and is made up of 11 MPs with Andrew Miller as the chair. Most committees have 11 members and the membership reflects the current political party balance. Therefore, within the S+T committee there are 4 Labour, 5 Conservatives, 1 Liberal Democrat and 1 Plaid Cymru MPs.

The topics addressed are wide-ranging with current enquiries including, European and UK Space Agencies; Clinical trials and Marine Science. Past topics include alcohol guidelines; forest research and malware and cyber crime.

How an enquiry works

First of all the subject matter of an inquiry is scoped and agreed upon, often aided by the committee clerks. Inquiry topics can be influenced by the current news, legislative program of the department they’re looking at or even topic areas which the government is not currently legislating for but the committee thinks they should be¹.

A call for evidence is then released using a press release and is publicised widely. The call for evidence comprises of a number of questions. For example some of the questions released for the S+T inquiry on alcohol guidelines were:

a)  What evidence are Government’s guidelines on alcohol intake based on, and how regularly is the evidence base reviewed?

b)  Could the evidence base and sources of scientific advice to Government on alcohol be improved?

There is a set period of time whereby people can submit their written evidence responding to the questions asked and some may be called in to give oral evidence. There can be up to 6 evidence sessions and these are generally televised. Sometimes the press picks up on these evidence sessions like in the cyber crime and malware inquiry shown below.

Press release after evidence is given to MPs at a select committee hearing
Press release after evidence is given to MPs at a Select Committee hearing

Once evidence submission has closed the evidence is gathered up, analysed and a draft report composed which includes the committee’s conclusions and recommendations to the government. After MPs all agree, the report it is published.

After publication, government has up to 6 weeks to respond the report. They often do so by publishing their response specifically answering all the points raised in the MP’s reports.

David Cameron responds to a report published by a select committee
David Cameron responds to a report published by a select committee

All inquiries and responses are available in the public domain and can be found on the specific websites for each Select Committee.

The power of a select committee

Select committees are an integral part to the Parliamentary process, with the cross-party representation they can really analyse the effectiveness the current government’s policies. Furthermore, they provide information to the broader public. They have the influencing ability to call in attendance public officials, civil servants, members of the public as well as people who are affected by the policies, to question them in detail for gathering evidence. The opinions and recommendations of a report is based on the evidence collected and analysed in an objective way. This is perhaps why working for a select committee has piqued my interest, it’s a scientific approach to collect data, gather evidence and make your conclusion based on what you have before you. For me, this is a natural approach to tackle and identify problems.

What will I be doing?

To be honest I am not entirely sure yet! I will be supporting the work of a current enquiry but what it’ll be on won’t be confirmed until I start. Watch this space…

References

1. http://www.parliament.uk/about/podcasts/theworkofparliament/select-committees-in-the-house-of-commons/how-do-select-committees-work/

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