Monday, 2 December 2013

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Day 1

I set my alarm for 6 this morning to awake in the hotel in the Strand that the Royal Society was putting me up in to finish assembling and writing the paperwork for the Period Review of our physics programmes at the University of Surrey, sent it off and breathed a sigh of relief.  I headed downstairs to the pretty good breakfast buffet, where I had the habitual breakfast that I have when I'm in hotels, though I would rarely do so at home.  This one was good.  The stuff sitting in the hotplates seemed fresh.  There was fried bread and sautéed potatoes, though no veggie sausages.  There was a nice selection of fresh fruit, too.  The hotel also had a stash of newspapers for guests to take.  No Independent, but at least the Guardian.  

Still, I suppose the day was not about the breakfast.  In the hotel lobby I bumped into a bunch of the other participants and we went off together to the Palace of Westminster to begin our day with a guided tour.  It was fun.  I've been there before, to some receptions - mostly organised by the Institute of Physics together with MPs - but never to much of it, including the actual house of commons and house of lords chambers.  That was pretty neat.  They are much smaller than you'd expect.  Well, much smaller than I expected.  

When we were through with the tour, someone commented on how much I looked like Benedict Cumberbatch, and then it was time to go to Portcullis House (right next to the houses of parliament) to a series of events interspersed with coffee and lunch breaks. 

I more or less immediately found the civil servant I was paired with as part of the scheme.  Though I thought I hadn't heard of the branch of the civil service that he worked for (CAST), it turned out that I had. It used to be called the Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB) and we have sent some students on placement there before.  I'm going to be shadowing him on Thursday, which will involve going to St Albans, but today, we both took part in the series of sessions which consisted of a series of talks with some panel sessions with questions from the audience.  I tried to make sure I asked questions, partly to find out the answers, but also to make sure I engaged... 

Well, there were lots of talks and corresponding panels.  It started with an overview of Parliament from a speaker from the Hansard Society.  I had never heard of the Hansard Society, only knowing of Hansard in the context of the records of parliament, but they exist to promote our variety of parliamentary democracy as a good thing.  It was interesting in the sense that part of the reason that I signed up to the scheme was to understand more about how parliament in general works.

This session was followed by one in which previous people taking part gave a talk about what they made of it and giving advice to us as to what to get out of it.  Clearly some of the previous participants got a lot out of it, and we started with an academic from Loughborough and her MP, Nicky Morgan (who made a point of recommending Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto to read) who clearly developed a good relationship out of the scheme.  It did make me (and perhaps my shadowing partner, as we discussed later) feel that I was potentially missing out on the benefits of the scheme by not being paired with someone much actually linked with parliament.  Still, interesting talks, and gave me things to think about to make sure I do get the most out of the event.

The last session was a series of people talking about the role of science in parliament.  It was chaired by the director of POST - the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.  This was a fine series of wonks, and I learned a lot about the role of science in parliament, limited as it is.

There were many interesting questions asked and answered afterwards, and one could have a long debate about many of them.  Perhaps Lord Winston provided most of the answers and opinions that would have provided most fodder for debate if there were really time.  I don't really have time tonight to explore things before going to bed and going back for more tomorrow, but I took the salutary lesson from some of the panelists that parliamentarians really have no obligation to take scientific evidence as the only or main basis for their deliberations.  Parliamentary democracy is not about doing what scientists say is right.  While we might wish to persuade people that a scientific way of looking at things is a good idea, it is not the default position.  In a democracy, if enough people prefer non-scientific ways of looking at things, we should engage with them on a basis of respect rather than look down at them.  Obvious, but salutary words.