Friday, 6 December 2013

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Days 2 & 3

I posted about taking part in the Royal Society pairing scheme I'm taking part in after the first day on Monday.  The week continued with a day of talks and discussions on Tuesday, followed by some time shadowing my paired civil servant on Thursday.  Wednesday was, in principle, another shadowing day, but I'd had a long-standing funding panel meeting that day, which I wanted to keep.

While Monday's talks were more concerned with science in Parliament, Tuesday's were about science in Government - i.e. that section of parliament which is currently in power, along with the various departments (DECC, BIS, DfT and so on...).  Unfortunately I took notes on my laptop whose power supply has since died, and until I replace it the notes are only so many inaccessible magnetised domains.  However, my short-term memory has not yet entirely failed, and I'll attempt to recall what I can.

Tuesday kicked off with a talk by Jill Rutter, of the Institute for Government, which is a think tank promoting better government.  She is their programme director, and has much experience as a civil servant.  She started off commenting on the dearth of people with science backgrounds at the very top of the civil service, as highlighted on this slide.  She went on to discuss various structures in government in which science plays a role.  The theme was reiterated from yesterday that scientists should remember that in a democracy, non-scientific, non-evidence-based outcomes may prevail, and went on to give what to me was a rather extreme view - that the advice of scientists should be limited to their very narrow specialism and they shouldn't attempt to do anything but pass on this expertise with whatever context is necessary to enable decisions to be made.  What I found a bit much was her explicit suggestion that because they are experts in x, they don't know a thing about y.  I rather think people in general, and expertise in particular, is not so black and white.  We are always being told (correctly, I think) that physicists learn all sorts of transferable skills that they can apply to other situations.  The same is true of other disciplines.  Oh well.  I think she certainly did have a point that scientists should be a sort of honest broker, and do thier utmost not to deliberately steer the policy maker to the scientist's single favoured outcome.  There may be all sorts of partial solutions that would work in a compromise between competing sides.  We also learned about the Commons Science and Technology Committee, whose constitution is shown in the slide attached to this post.  I hadn't realised the suprise inclusion.

The second talk I think highlighted why should not ignore the opinions of people unless it is in their narrow area of expertise;  David MacKay gave a characteristically iconoclastic talk about his role as the Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC.  He highlighted some of the activities he's been involved in, his push to make data and processes completely open (with mixed results) and made lots of interesting comments.  The one that stuck with me was that, to turn the message of their being so few scientists in Westmister on its head, he pointed out that being one of the few scientists can give one disproportionate influence.  

The third talk was about Horizon Scanning (our usual world of academic jargon was replaced  by one of wonkese).  I'm not sure that I got too much out of that one, except to know that the government keeps its eye on potential long-term changes to the world in general that might require science input to think about what to do about them.

After lunch, we had a quick "top ten tips for academics" talk by Chris Fleming from GO-Science.  I wrote them all done on my currently dormant laptop, so can't reproduce them all  here.  But they're all sort of obvious things.  Perhaps one to highlight and record here is the one that (paraphrased) reads don't give up.  This is in the context of trying to give scientific input to a government process.  If you don't succeed in getting your voice heard, or if it is heard but ignored, don't let it stop you trying again.  Probably good advice, there.

There was then a gap of something over an hour before a scheduled all-group optional pub visit to mark the end of the activities we'd be doing all together.  I was going to go into the spectators' gallery of the house of commons, but the organisers, probably sensibly, just decided to move the pub visit forward.  So I went there, and enjoyed talking to some of the other participants in the pairing scheme.  That included another participant from my institution.  I didn't feel too bad about not recognising her since she only started a few weeks ago.

And so to supper and bed.

Wednesday found me taking part in a Nuclear Physics Grant Panel meeting for STFC from the comfort of my office, and some videoconferencing software, then going out with my other half, our daughter and my mum for my partner's birthday for lunch, then to buy a new (though old) car to replace the one that the garage said wasn't worth repairing, then to my partner's Dad's place for dinner, before I returned to mine to prepare for an early start.

That early start involved me getting a lift to the workplace of the civil servant I was paired with.  He works at the Centre for Applied Science and Technology near St Albans.  I got a pretty exhaustive tour of the activities they are involved with, which is basically anything that the police and Home Office need science input for.  Examples include police body armour, license place recognition, CCTV image processing and so on.  It was all interesting stuff, and I enjoyed talking to my pair and his colleagues.  On the other hand it is the sort of place I have visited many times when visiting our students out on placement, so I do feel I'd have learned a lot more if I had been paired with an MP.  Still, I think i got a lot out of the week in general.  

I attended the final talk of the week, at the Royal Society, which summarised some of the work the Royal Society do, particularly in linking with government.  I'm not sure I learned too much, being pretty familiar with the RS, but I think the event was more organised to get us all back together for an informal chat over coffee before the end of the week.  

So - that's it.  Probably too long a blog post, but I might bring up other things as they come to me in following posts.  There will certainly be more to write about when my paired civil servant makes his return visit to Surrey, and when I go to the wrap-up (followed by piss-up) session at the Royal Society in January