Ian Gibson wrote last month in the Times Higher that we need a new generation of politically savvy scientists. He said
“many in the scientific community do not see it as their business to get involved in matters of policy. In fact, the grant-assessment system and career-progression paths militate against such involvement – after all, it distracts from the perceived all-important focus on the publication of research results in top journals. … it is essential for them to understand how science is used (and misused) by the hierarchies within government. There is a desperate need for a new generation to emerge within their disciplines with the muscle and confidence to influence legislators, politicians and civil servants alike on particular scientific policies.”
I was a bit surprised as I thought we already had a good cohort of politically-aware scientists. Just looking around this site we have the Science is Vital veterans, Jenny, Richard and Stephen, as well as Sylvia and Athene who often write on policy issues.
Politically I always feel myself to be neutral. I’m not of course: I have a bit of a Guardian habit and I generally tie my colours to that side of the mast. But I rarely engage with political arguments; I prefer to listen than to proffer my opinion.
In the workplace I usually assume a neutral position when it comes to institutional politics too. The Library is not aligned with any particular branch of science or section of the Institute but we know a bit about the whole range of science that goes on here. Hence I am seen as an impartial (and moderately knowledgeable) pair of hands. This means I am called on to take on various diverting tasks, such as writing up research news for the website, managing the Annual Report, and taking minutes for our Heads of Divisions (HoDs) meetings. The last one of those means that I occasionally get invited along to other interesting meetings (I sometimes suspect I am invited by mistake, but I’m not proud so I accept before they have a chance to withdraw the invite!). I remember Richard Smith (ex-editor of the BMJ) giving a talk to the HoDs some years back on publishing and open access, and particularly remember a talk in 2001 by Ian Gibson, MP.
Ian Gibson was no ordinary MP. He had had a career as a biological scientist and academic, working with Conrad Waddington at Edinburgh, followed by a stint at Bloomington, Indiana then 30 years at UEA, Norwich, before leaving the academic life to join the House of Commons as MP for Norwich in 1997. Hence he spoke about science with authority and he understood the scientific life. When he visited us in 2001 he had just become chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology and he talked to us about science and politics. He told us that scientists ignore politics at their peril. This turned out to be prophetic.
I decided that I should do my bit to help back in 2001. Keeping yourself informed about science policy was not straightforward. There was no well-oiled information machine like the one that helps scientists to keep up-to-date with the literature of their field. Policy information often comes not from books and journals but from organisations, their reports and working papers, which can be hard to track down – what we librarians like to call “grey literature”. This is the sort of information I enjoyed working with years ago when I first worked in libraries.
In order to crack the science policy information nut I started scanning various websites every morning, on the lookout for interesting items of news about scientific research and policy. Science, Nature and the Times Higher were all rich sources at the end of each week but I also looked at research funders’ websites, learned societies, relevant government and non-departmental bodies websites, and scientific press release websites such as AlphaGalileo. Later on most sites started to produce RSS feeds so it became easier to scan for news.
At first I just posted occasional links on our intranet page to interesting news items, but later I started an RSS feed of my own, that could be displayed on the intranet page but was also accessible to others. My selection of what to include was guided by my knowledge of what was relevant to our science (hence flu and stem cells, for instance, often feature), our concerns (biological safety, research animals, health and safety) and to our institutional nature (research funding is interesting but undergraduate teaching is less so) and location (UK news, London news and some international news). Something about “teaching geochemistry in Shenzhen” would not make the grade, but something about “proposed UK legislation on stem cell research” definitely would. My feed also includes some funding news, news about scientific honours and prizes, some blogposts on policy or about the scientific life, and very occasionally something about a big scientific advance. I wanted to inform people not deluge them, so six or seven items each day is my limit. If anyone wants a broader coverage they can look at SPIN from Wellcome. A few years after I started this service the MRC Press Office started to send out a weekly digest of policy news. It has a broader focus than my feed but is based mostly on newspaper and magazine sources.
I usually try to link to the original source of a news item, for example a statement from BIS about a new government initiative, but if there are interesting comments about the initiative in a news source I may include that instead or as well. Choosing the right moment to include an item is not always obvious – when is it news rather than “this might happen”. Do I just want to inform scientists about what has happened already or should I alert them to what might happen so that they can take action? I include items about relevant Select Committee reports, but also include announcements of forthcoming enquiries and calls for evidence. The news that Science is Vital lobbied Parliament was interesting, but it was just as important to flag up in advance their call for scientists to get involved.
Is the feed still necessary? I have not done any formal evaluation of my newsfeed, but I get plenty of anecdotal feedback that people see the items I post and find at least some of them interesting. I also sometimes hear from website managers that they see a good deal of traffic coming from our site, so I know that people are clicking through. I think it is easier these days to find this kind of information. Join twitter and follow a couple of dozen people interested in science policy and you will see all the news you could need. I think my feed still has the edge, as it is focused keenly on the interests of this institute and (perhaps) has the odd quirky story that doesn’t spread on Twitter.
If you want to see what I think is interesting in biomedical research policy and news, check out the feed.