Informing science and policy

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.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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8 Responses to Informing science and policy

  1. rpg says:

    Interesting stuff, Frank. I wish more scientists were interested in policy.

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks. I don’t know whether it’s just because I am looking for it so I see more, or because Twitter makes it more visible, but I have the feeling that scientists are talking and writing more about policy issues now than they were a few years back. I was impressed with the response that Science is Vital got from the community. I guess it takes a good crisis to get people mobilised.

  3. I think scientists writing more about policy reflects largely the ‘career crisis’ (especially at postdoctoral level) that we have talked about several times. Though I think the people you hear from least on science policy are those on the PI treadmill at tenure-track but sub-Professiorial faculty level. Not that people like that don’t have views, but at that point it simply doesn’t seem a productive use of their (scarce) time, at least to most people I’ve talked to.

    I have written a bit about science policy on and off, both at OT and at the other place, though I guess I tend to have more of a medical slant than some of the others, as well as a rather more jaundiced view.. ! I also used to write rather more consciously ‘balanced’ editorials with policy themes for Physiology News, over quite a few years actually. Though after a while it can feel like you are simply saying the same things over and over again. What blogs and other social media are really good for, as Jenny and the others showed so well with Science is Vital, is rallying for a cause.

    In terms of ‘knowing what is going on’ in politics WRT science, the blogger I read with most attention is William Cullerne Bown, who seems to have easily the best political contacts of the science policy writers. He is certainly far more informative abuot science and Universities than the Times Higher Ed.

    Finally, good to see Ian Gibson back in (virtual?) circulation. I actually did a little tribute to him a few years back when he left the Commons. He was a good friend to science in the House, and was treated very shabbily by the Labour Party (in my opinion).

  4. Sent a long comment, but it has links so will probably be in the spam filter.

  5. Very interesting. It’s difficult to find good resources about science and policy, the available stuff is quite scattered. This post pointed me to links I didn’t know about, and I’m sure I’m missing much more.

    Is there a “Top 10 science policy sites” blog post out there somewhere? I think it would be widely used.

  6. Prateek Buch says:

    there are a few of us who are indeed interested in policy and politics 🙂

    there are two issues – the number of scientists and engineers in Parliament/councils/civil service (which is never realistically likely to rise above a handful albeit more than today), and ensuring that whoever happens to be in Parliament/councils/civil service understands how science and engineering work. This is important not only so that policy that directly impacts on research is gotten right, but so that the results of research are maximally translated into policy – the essence of evidence-based policy, which is needed in diverse sections of public policy.

    I must admit I didn’t know of your RSS feed until now and I’ll give it a whirl, I suspect it will be additional to stories circulating via Twitter and certain blogs – a welcome addition, in other words!

    Your point about getting scientists to be proactive is key – vital, one might say! – and that’s what’s made me so lucky/proud to be (peripherally) involved in SiV. The active engagement by real lab scientists with funding bodies, the media and government impressed all three, and needs to complement the work of bodies like CaSE and others in ensuring science and public policy meet and understand each other.

    Great work!


  7. Frank says:

    Thanks all for your kind comments.

    Austin – Sorry I omitted to mention your science policy posts. I agree that the tenure track people are the busiest, with a tremendous pressure to produce results.

    I also concur about William Cullerne-Brown. Unfortunately we don’t subscribe to Research Fortnight so I only get to read his blogposts and tweets but he always has something interesting and perspicacious to say.

    Ian Gibson mentioned in the Times Higher piece that he has been doing work with Newton’s Apple, helping to bridge that science-policy divide. They don’t seem very visible to me, though.

    Jamie – Hmmm, a “Top 10 sci pol sites” blogpost? I will have a think. The trouble is there is “Top” as in important</em< and "Top" as in frequently updated. And there is “Policy” as in what has happened and “Policy” as in em>what does it mean. But I think I can come up with a dirty dozen sites.

    Prateek – I think there is only one real scientist in Parliament now, Julian Huppert. I did see a longer list of MPs with an interest in science, but I can’t remember where and I can’t now find it.

    As for civil servants I think the Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington has done a good job in assembling a network of scientific advisers in all the main government departments. This is something that the Select Committee, under Ian Gibson, pushed for.

    I’m not surprised you haven’t come across my feed as I have not promoted it. As Twitter does such a good job, I am not sure if it is very useful beyond its fairly specialised niche.

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