Science Grrl Isabel Vincent was recently selected to take part in a Royal Society pairing scheme, where scientists are partnered with parliamentarians and civil servants to gain insights in to how scientists can inform policy. The scheme runs each year and involves scientists spending a week in Westminster and parliamentarians having reciprocal visits to the scientist’s institution. Isabel was paired with Carol Monaghan, the SNP MP for Glasgow North West. Before becoming an MP in May 2015, Carol was head of Science at Hyndland Secondary and currently sits on the Science and Technology Select Committee in Westminster.
Here Isabel gives an insight into her week in Westminster:
18:30 Dinner at Carluccio’s in Covent Garden – a chance to meet the other scientists on the partnership scheme. There are 32 scientists on the pairing scheme and they have been paired with a variety of parliamentarians, civil servants, ministers and lords. Lots of very driven, astute people including a hydrologist in the middle of a move to a new post doc in Glasgow, a very entertaining professor of economics developing an app for stroke detection and a neuroscientist who used to be a groupie for the Grateful Dead.
After dinner we drew lots to see who would be on a mock select committee later in the week – I was lucky enough to be chosen, but didn’t volunteer myself to be chairperson.
09:00 We arrive at Westminster Palace and go through airport-style security to get into Westminster Hall – the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament. We get a tour of Westminster, taking us through a rabbit warren of tunnels and passages connecting large ornate rooms full of statues of ex politicians. Our guide described what the coloured carpets encoded and how they “posh the place up” for the queen on the opening of parliament each year. We learnt how government and parliament worked, how the houses of lords and commons came into being and the origins of expressions such as “in the bag” and “toe the line”.
11:00 In Portcullis House (much newer and warmer than Westminster Hall!) we had talks from various scientific advisory bodies for parliament followed by a worked example on how policy is informed using a case study of mitochondrial inheritance.
17:00 A drinks reception and a chance to meet our parliamentarians for a chat and a photo opportunity.
19:15 Over to the Royal Society on Carlton House Terrace for a PolicyLab entitled “How can science help the UK meet the Sustainable Development Goals?”
21:30 Exhausted, but excited about the week ahead, we headed home. There was no shortage of women in science today – and I even met a few Science Grrls from other chapters around the country!
Tuesday – First day of shadowing
11:30 First up for the day was a debate in the House of Commons on Trident. Carol had prepared a speech on the topic of the non-renewal of trident, but had to wait to see whether she would be selected to make her speech or whether she had to settle for a few interventions into other peoples’ speeches. In the end she was only able to make interventions.
An intervention involves standing up while someone else is speaking and asking “will the speaker give way?”. The speaker can choose whether to allow an intervention or not and often doesn’t allow interventions as there are so many people bobbing up and down wishing to intervene that the speaker would have difficulty finishing his/her speech if all were permitted. The SNP benches were full for the trident debate, the other benches much less so. Many of the other MPs were very rude to the SNP when they were speaking and a few labour MPs were visibly laughing at the SNP while they were trying to make their point. I found it very difficult to concentrate on the debate as people were constantly commenting and trying to put off the speakers (comments that the microphones for the TV recordings don’t pick up).
14:15 Before the end of the debate (which was defeated by a vote), I had to skip out to watch a meeting of the Select Committee for Science and Technology. The committee was analysing how science could be used in the future to inform emergencies and looking at lessons to be learnt from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Panels of “witnesses” (experts from various areas of public health, the media and the army) were called in and were asked a series of questions for the committee to gather evidence. This evidence would then be used to inform a report with recommendations for the government.
17:30 After the select committee, Carol and I attended an event with the RNIB, who have been training Vision Support Officers to help people come to terms with vision impairment. Carol was collared due to the lack of Support Officers in Glasgow and she promised to look into the matter alongside her MSP counterparts, Sandra White and Bill Kidd.
18:30 After a photo op with the RNIB we headed to the computer clusters where we attempted to get to grips with the HoP expenses system – not easy! Carol has had a few claims turned back so has been paying for her constituency office out of her own pocket until the expenses can be paid. It’s not difficult to see how mistakes could be made using the expense system (but not how an ornamental duck pond could be claimed..!).
19:00 The day finishes with another vote in the House of Commons – this time on whether the closures of HMRC offices should be halted. The Speaker asks people to shout “no” or “aye” and if the vote is split then a formal vote called a division takes place. A bell rings throughout the HoP when there is a division in either house (a red bell appears on the TV screens if it’s a vote in the Lords, a green bell for the Commons) and the members have eight minutes to rush into the House for the vote. The “no”s exit the House through one door and the “aye”s through another, where they are formally counted. The motion on HMRC office closures was defeated.
Wednesday – Another day of shadowing
11:30 – Prime Ministers’ questions and the spending review. The viewing galleries are packed and we are all undergo extra searches before we go in. After George Osborne’s speech on the spending review a few SNP MPs meet up over a quick lunch to discuss the implications. Everything that George Osborne said sounded very positive, but the devil is in the detail and all his proposals need to be picked apart very carefully over the next few days.
13:00 After lunch, a debate in the Commons about a childcare bill. The bill affects England only and is at its second reading after having first been debated in the Commons and then in Lords. The House of Commons is not very busy and I was surprised to see so many SNP MPs debating on a matter that only affects people in England. The SNP were worried that the focus of the bill was on getting parents back into work rather than on providing the best start in life to children (and avoiding attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children).
16:00 I leave the debate early to attend a mock select committee on whether the government should introduce an Office for Scientific Responsibility. The committee was charged with interviewing four witnesses on their views and the debate became quite heated at times. No conclusions were made, but the difficulties of forming such a body became quite apparent and a few members of the committee changed their initial opinions on the need for an office.
18:00 Back in the Commons there was no division on the Childcare bill and it was permitted to pass on to the next stage. Coincidentally, after the childcare bill was a vote on whether my dad could become an electoral commissioner. I kept a close eye out for anyone that opposed him, but he passed through without a hitch.
10:00 Thursday was a roundup session with talks from the Government Office for Science and Chief Scientific Officer Mark Walport. We were able to discuss the differences between shadowing an MP, a lord and a civil servant and to give seem feedback (very positive) to the Royal Society. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed their shadowing and took a lot from it – it will be interesting to see what the parliamentarians are able to gain from us when the reciprocal visits are made!
Back to Glasgow after an exhausting, but very insightful week.
5 things I learned:
- Anyone can go into the Houses of Parliament and view a debate whenever then like
- There are lots of ways to submit evidence to MPs if there is an issue you are particularly interested in
- The vast majority of MPs are extremely busy and are constantly bombarded with requests
- The House of Commons is much noisier than it looks on TV and the MPs can be very rude to one another
- Westminster catering is worse than university catering