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How to explain science to those who need it most: politicians

In a few days, the Spanish Parliament (Congreso de los Diputados de España) will open its doors to #CienciaenelParlamento, an initiative to ensure that scientific knowledge is taken into account in political decisions. One of its references is POST, the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which, over the last 30 years, has been providing legislators with information on topics such as genomics and micro-plastics. In London, POST consultants tell us how they work.

Ciencia en el Parlamento (Science in Parliament), a public-run initiative, was launched in 2017. It is an independent initiative, composed of scientists who are convinced that scientific research should be taken into account when it comes to legislation. / Cinta Arribas

On the banks of the River Thames we find one of London´s most emblematic buildings: the Palace of Westminster, which houses the Parliament of the United Kingdom. For 30 years, its members have been receiving objective and reliable information on topics such as research with embryos and electronic cigarettes, all of this thanks to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), a scientific advisory body that is present in numerous countries and which Spain now wants to import with the #CienciaenelParlamento initiative.

Founded in 1989, POST was the world´s second scientific advisary office and is the oldest one still active. Its forerunner was the US’s Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which operated between 1972 and 1995 until the Republicans closed it down for political reasons as it was not always in agreement with its ideas.

“[POST] started out as an office financed by external organizations,” explained one of the knowledge exchange directors, Sarah Foxen, during our visit to her office. Nowadays, it obtains its resources from both houses (the Lords and the Commons, equivalent to Senate and Congress in Spain) and its annual budget is about 600,000 pounds sterling per year (about 680,000 Euros). It is composed of 14 independent officials, governed by a board of MPs and external researchers.

A look at the future in four pages

The flagship product of POST is its ‘notes’, four-page documents that compile the available evidence on a certain subject. “They are accessible, balanced and impartial briefings on an area of research that we believe will be important and generate discussions in the future, so it’s useful for parliamentarians to have basic knowledge,” says Rowena Bermingham, one of the Social Sciences advisors of POST.

They do not tell politicians what they should do: “We only present evidence in an impartial way”, summarizes the Head of POST

Each written sentence is an objective fact that includes a source. The document does not make recommendations or tell politicians what they should do: “We only present evidence in an impartial manner,” summarizes Grant Hill-Cawthorne, the Head of POST. It is a ‘lowest common denominator’ of the available data, which also highlights the points where there is still no consensus.

The value of these texts lies in their prospective nature, the result of what is known as “horizon scanning”. Hill-Cawhtorne gives the document on mitochondrial diseases published in 2014 as an example. “The note talked about what would later be known as ‘three-parent embryos’, and gave enough background information on this technology and its implications so that parliamentarians could discuss the law and change it.” In 2015, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to approve this technique of in vitro fertilization.

A note by the POST

The challenge of impartiality

Climate change, transgenics, nuclear energy ... Science does not escape ideology, personal biases and political and business interests. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges of an organization such as POST is that of preserving its independence and credibility, and generate non-partisan texts.

Here the board comes into play. This an essential part of POST composed of 14 parliamentarians from the different parties and independent researchers representing centres such as the Royal Society. Its duty is to make the final selection of topics that the office staff will prepare. They also review the document before its publication, although the final approval is given by the head of the office. Above all, they defend the usefulness and relevance of the office to prevent it from ending up like the US’s OTA.

The reliability of POST documents is due to the large number of experts involved in its drafting. This explains why each document requires three months’ work once the subject is approved. “We interviewed more than twenty industry experts, regulators, academics, charities, government members and think tanks ...,” says Bermingham. To this we must add the scientific literature. Once all the available evidence is gathered, it is edited until a draft is prepared, ready for internal review.

One of the great challenges of the scientific advisory office is that of preserving its independence and credibility

“It is a two-hour round table where we go line by line: is it accessible? Is it balanced? Is it impartial?” says Bermingham. After that, the document is returned to academics and experts for a peer review “as if it were a paper”. The document is re-edited with the suggestions received until it is reviewed and approved by the POST director.

The almost 30 years’ experience of POST also speaks in its favour. “Parliamentarians know that we have a review process and they trust the process and the reputation, which the product has gained over time,” says Foxen. In addition, it is possible to check on the internet who has been asked and who has reviewed each of the documents. Climate change may entail an ideological factor, but temperature data are just numbers.

The Palace of Westminster houses the Parliament of the United Kingdom. / Wikipedia

The POST has also a didactic task. Each note is written by a PhD student who is an intern at the office for three months. “The idea is to train the next generation. Even if they go back to the academy later, they will have seen how Parliament operates and how we work here”, explains Bermingham.

In fact, many PhD students end up working in POST or in related positions. Bermingham and Foxen are two examples of this. Helle Abelvik-Lawson is finishing her PhD and her doctorate and internship. Her story is similar to that of her fellow veterans: “It seemed to me a very interesting way to try something new and use my research skills to do something rigorous and analytical.” Her document is about harassment, has already gone through four revisions and will be ready for publication in December.

Micro-plastics and sugar

Measuring the impact of a scientific advisory agency is not easy. Political changes are slow and difficult to correlate with a single cause. “We try to see if people quote our work and our notes are often quoted in academic literature,” explains Hill-Cawthorne .

“It is great when a politician thanks you and you see that he has used data from your note in his debate,” says Bermingham

In 2016, POST published a summary on marine microplastics that highlighted the harmful effects they can have on the environment and on human health. For this reason, the Parliament's Environmental Audit Commission carried out an investigation and recommended the prohibition of micro-beads used in cosmetics. Since this year, its use has been illegal.

Sometimes a topic is revisited as its investigation progresses. Hill-Cawthorne remembers the note in 1992 on sugar and health, when "the only existing evidence was that it provoked cavities". Evidence emerged about its relationship with diabetes and obesity and they wrote a new note in 2015: “It led to a discussion as to whether sugar should be taxed or not and we wrote another one, in 2016 , about its implications.” Since this year, soft drinks have been more expensive in the United Kingdom.

Bermingham adds that it is not necessary to make a historic law change to talk about success. “We are giving politicians tools to do their job better and that’s important. It’s great when someone thanks you and you see that you they have used your note in their debate.”

The seeds of a Spanish POST?

The British scientific advisory office is the oldest and one of the largest in the world, but it is not the only one. Germany, France, Sweden, México and even the European Parliament are just a few examples of others. The citizen initiative Ciencia en el Parlamento (Science in Parliament or CeeP) was born in 2017 as a response to the lack of ‘affection’ between politics and science in Spain.

So far, the president of the Spanish Parliament, Ana Pastor, has already promised the creation of a similar office after meeting with the promoters of CeeP. In addition, on November 6th and 7th there will be a series of events in Parliament, in which FECYT and Cotec participate, and which include debates between politicians and scientists.

In Spain, the president of the Parliament has promised the creation of a similar office after meeting with the promoters of Ciencia en el Parlamento

Andreu Climent, researcher at the Hospital Gregorio Marañón in Madrid, is the ideologue of CeeP. He explains that the idea of these sessions is to “emulate” the manner in which a scientific advisory office works with the legislative branch. To do this, they have developed twelve documents similar to those of POST, focusing on topics such as artificial intelligence and family conciliation.

Climent makes it clear that the goal of CeeP is to create the environment for the office to emerge, not to actually become the office. “24 volunteers have carried out this work, but if you want it to work, you have to do it well. This is like the Netflix free trial month.”

The researcher says that explaining what scientific advice consists of, to both scientists and politicians, is a challenge. “Here we are used to having an expert come, tell us his point of view and that is the Bible, but it’s not really like that. It's a matter of seeing how knowledge of a subject can help one’s legislative work.” What matters is not that the decisions are “based on evidence” but “informed by evidence”, which will contribute to their being “more successful.”

Team of “Ciencia en el Parlamento”. / Cotec

Empowering civil society

“What we want is a situation in which, when a politician proposes something, the rival can’t say ‘you haven’t read this, don´t you come to me with nonsense,” says Climent. “It’s not so much a matter of changing politics as of raising the level of the discussion. Instead of speaking about what you've read on the internet, you speak on the basis of something that’s been reviewed and cross-referenced.”

“What we want is a situation in which, when a politician proposes something, the rival can say ‘you haven’t read this, don´t you come to me with nonsense,” says Climent.

The researcher stresses the importance of understanding that scientific evidence “is what many people agree on”, and that this “sometimes is much less than state-of-the-art knowledge.” It is also important to understand that “science does not have absolute answers” and the need to be “critical of sources”. Communicating all this to society and politicians is another of CeeP’s goals.

Will the ‘Spanish POST’ come to fruition or will it end up like the American OTA? Climent is very optimistic, and not only because of the great reception he says he has received among all groups in Congress. “I think it can work because we finally have a scientific sector large enough for people with research training to do things that aren’t pure academia and solve problems that aren’t entirely scientific.”

Climent maintains that the key for the office to be born healthy is to get it to have an independent and credible structure before it is institutionalised. “Let's design the patronage of politicians and scientists well, with MPs who understand that this doesn’t go against an ideology, although it does sometimes clash with this; rather, that it will eventually be profitable for the whole system.” The lesson of his British counterpart is that the project will only last if the MPs truly believe in it.

Immediate answers to urgent issues

The prospective nature of POST is complemented by the other two types of advice available to the British Parliament, both reactive. One of them is the library. That of the House of Commons has 75 researchers divided into 8 teams, where politicians can receive unbiased information on any subject.

Ed Potton is the head of the Science and Environment section: “We exist because parliamentarians can’t know everything. Unlike POST, which is long-term, we focus on things that happen today, tomorrow or in two weeks’ time.”

These documents have no page limit (they may exceed one hundred pages). They are written by specialists, such as doctors and economists, based on public data, to give a quick answer to current questions. According to Potton, the collection amounts to 900 documents on topics ranging from medical cannabis to fracking and care is taken to keep them updated.

The other type of reactive advice is that provided by commissions such as the Science and Technology commission, composed of parliamentarians with the support of officials. These carry out investigations and pose questions to the Government, as in the case of micro-plastics. “In the end, a report is written with the evidence found and with recommendations to the Government, which has two months to respond,” explains commission specialist Harry Beeson, who also did an internship at the POST. He considers that “over 40% of the suggestions are taken into account.”

In the end, its work is intertwined with that of POST: its last report, focused on how to monitor and improve research activity, started from a note published by POST last year. Although it is too soon to know this, Beeson claims that the Government “has responded well.”

Source: SINC
Copyright: Creative Commons
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