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Science Policy: Improving The Uptake Of Research Into UK Policy Course

28 August 2018


Dr Fiona Lugg-Widger (FL) and Dr David Gillespie (DG) recently attended “Science Policy: Improving the Uptake of Research into UK Policy course” on behalf of the Centre for Trials Research. This is a new course delivered at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge to introduce early career researchers (ECR) to UK policy making and engagement with policy makers. Around 50 delegates attended. The audience primarily included PhD students and other early career researchers. Here Fiona and Dave talk about their experience at the event, key insights they had and what they are taking away from it.

What presentations did you most enjoy?

DG: An afternoon session on the first day involved current and former Parliamentarians discussing their approaches to evidence – particularly what sources they use and trust and how they find it easiest to interact with the research community. This session gave me an appreciation of the need to balance well conducted robust evidence with individual testimonials, the consideration of the broader context (e.g. considerations beyond health/social care), thinking through *who* to engage with in policy making (e.g. your local politician may not be the right person to approach if they are ideologically opposed to your cause), and the weight collective responses from renowned organisations can have compared to a lone voice.

FL: One of the first sessions of the course gave examples of:

  1. how science changed law
  2. how a change to law impacted science.

The first example was about mitochondrial donation and how in 2000 the Dept. of Health issued a report which included recognition of the future potential use of mitochondrial donation. It took ten years for the techniques to be developed to enable mitochondrial donation however the law didn’t allow it to be used in practice.

After another 5 years of debates, draft bills and consultations (all the while the research continued, providing further evidence of the possibilities) the law was updated to allow clinics to apply for a licence under strict regulations.

The second example was about GDPR and how the concerns raised by Edward Snowden led to amendments to the draft regulation to highly restrict the use of data (including for research). Wellcome began to advocate for these changes to be removed including writing a letter to the Times, writing a joint statement signed by numerous funders, organisations and universities and briefing the House of Lords. A compromise text was agreed – which placed each country responsible for agreeing use of data for research purposes, in which Wellcome continued the conversation at the UK level to ensure use of data for research was not so restrictive. In the 6 years of GDPR drafting and implementation, Wellcome had a hugely influential role for UK researchers and used evidence from all the research delivered to date to demonstrate the importance of continued data use.

It just shows how in both of these examples that it takes significant amounts of time and continued effort to make these changes and it is not an overnight transformation.

DG: Yes, and could easily require an investment of time, energy, and resource which would stretch beyond a single REF period.

What did you learn from the course?

DG: I was surprised to hear a Parliamentarian openly say that it is nigh on impossible to disinvest in a policy that evidence shows to be ineffective. The reason given for this was that the person who introduced the policy in the first place would inevitably lose their job. It would seem that this stems from a culture of blame in our society, and a lack of awareness or appreciation of uncertainty in science.

How has the event impacted your thinking?

DG: The course described routes available to researchers who want to engage with policy making (e.g. providing evidence for select committees and strategic approaches to relevant MPs). I plan to use these ideas when considering future research impact.

FL: I am already planning to submit evidence to an inquiry for the House of Commons and I now have a better idea of what they are looking for, how they will use the evidence and the difference it could make on decision making. There were also some group activities that looked at how best to summarise scientific information for politicians and I learnt some important tips from that. A fundamental take home message: use accessible language (no acronyms!), provide the key information first but also include the methods and assumptions – politicians need to feel confident that they have all the information before they stand up and speak out on behalf of us and our research.

DG/FL: We both met early career researchers from across the UK, representatives from learned organisations and royal societies, current and former politicians, which was valuable.