Since it featured on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, The Royal Society’s Parliamentary Pairing Scheme has seen increased media attention, not all of which has been positive. Alex Smith, a sociologist at the University of Warwick, questioned the credibility of the scheme in an article on the Making Science Public blog. This was recently republished on the London School of Economics Impact of Social Sciences blog, where it came to my attention.
In a sense it is refreshing to see criticism of such a scheme, since coverage of scientific outreach programmes is often unrelentingly self-congratulatory. Yet although I would like to see a robust evaluation of the scheme, I do not agree with many of Smith’s arguments. I will focus on scientist–MP pairings since I have experience of these, rather than pairings with civil servants.
The Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme aims to improve relationsbetween science and Parliament by ‘pairing’ scientists with MPs and civil servants. Since the scheme’s inception in 2001 over 180 pairings have been made. A scientist will spend a week shadowing their paired MP through Westminster and they are granted access to a number of committee meetings and hearings, allowing them to see how the policymaking process works. The MP reciprocates by visiting the scientist’s place of work, be it academia or industry, to help them to better understand the scientist’s work and the issues faced.
One of Smith’s key criticisms of the scheme is that it implicitly exaggerates “a sense of distance between the work of politics and science”. This includes the assumption that “politics can be ‘found’ in Westminster and that science is something done in a laboratory”. I would not seek to argue against the notion that “politics is as meaningfully transacted at the local-level” as it is in Parliament, however, I simply don’t think that it is relevant. The Pairing Scheme is not about ‘politics’ in the abstract, it is about understanding the UK Parliamentary process. Few people outside of the sector understand how Parliament works, and the Pairing Scheme provides scientists with some understanding of the process. Furthermore, the scheme aims to provide mutual benefit to the scientific and parliamentary communities by establishing lasting relationships between them.
I do not think that the ‘Week in Westminster’ should be dismissed as ‘political tourism’, a loaded phrase which implies a lack of substantive value. Of course, a single week will not imbue anyone with the same understanding of Parliament that comes with years of experience, but nobody is claiming that it does. The Royal Society website promises a ‘taste’ of Parliament, and that is what it delivers.
Having independently examined the Pairing Scheme for a previous piece of research on science in Parliament, I have had limited experience of the scheme myself. I can say that at least one pairing has led to further engagement. Nicola Blackwood, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, participated in the scheme in 2010. She was paired with Professor David Wark FRS, a particle physicist who works on several experiments worldwide. I spoke to both of them earlier this year, and learnt that they still keep in regular contact; it is almost as if Wark acts as Blackwood’s de-facto scientific adviser.
Wark’s participation in the scheme also led him to appear as a witness on the Home Affairs Select Committee, where he spoke on the importance of allowing researchers from overseas to work in UK universities. He has since attended further select committee meetings, which he has been made aware of through the scheme. Although this anecdote clearly cannot represent the scheme as a general case, it does speak volumes as to its potential. It would certainly be difficult to dismiss Wark as a mere ‘political tourist’, given his continuing involvement in Parliamentary business.
With that said, I am interested to know how many other pairings have led to further engagement, as the Royal Society has never published any evaluative data on the scheme. Although the Wark–Blackwood pairing was clearly successful, it would be naïve to assume that all pairings go so well. I also agree with Smith when he says the scheme should be treated a starting point for further engagement, rather than an all-inclusive package. However, without a formal assessment of success, it is difficult to see how this will take off.
IMAGE: Simone Grazian, flickr.