Newton’s Apple – An Introduction to Science Policy

politics, science, SGAC

On Thursday, I attended a meeting by Newton’s Apple at the House of Commons, kindly hosted by Dr Julian Huppert MP for Cambridge. It was a great chance to hear more how policy is made in the UK and how scientists can get involved to help shape the way of policy.

newtons-apple1“Newton’s Apple is a chance a charitable, non-partisan policy foundation. The organisation aims to act as a neutral bridge between science  and policy communities, thereby increasing that contribution that science, engineering and technology can bring to the development of policy issues for tackling issues faced by society.”

Newton's Apple material

Newton’s Apple material handed to us during the workshop

Speakers included:

  • Michael Elves – Chairman, Newton’s Apple (formerly Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee)
  • Dr Julian Huppert MP, MP for Cambridge, Member of the Home Affairs Select Committee
  • Dr Chris McFee – Head of Civil Contingencies, Government Office for Science.
  • Prof. Peter Main, Director of Education and Science, Institute of Physics

Chairman of Newton’s Apple, Michael Elves gave us “An Introduction to Science Policy” and kindly handed us some material shown above. Mr Elves explained how policy is made throughout government in the UK – how bills are born, move through parliament to the House of Lords. Bills that have been published, along with their explanatory notes can be accessed on the web at:

Passage of a Bill in UK. Credit:

Passage of a Bill in UK. Credit:

Dr Chris McFee explained about the Government of Science (“GO-Science”). The Office exists to support Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA), Prof. Sir Mark Walpott FRS FMedSci @UKScienceChief.

“The key role of the GCSA and GO-Science is to ensure that all levels of government, including the Prime Minister and Cabinet, receive the best scientific advice possible, and to enable the many science-using departments across government to create policies that are supported by strong evidence and robust arguments.”

GO-Science operates with three units:

  • Science in Government Unit (SIG) – making use of Scientific Advisory Committees and Science Advisory Councils (SACs) who provide information which government uses it to make informed judgements based on the evidence and advice provided.
  • Foresight (within which is the Horizon Scanning Centre) – to help government think systematically about the future.
  • International Science and Innovation Unit (ISIU) – which supports GO-Science on international science, research and innovation issues

Dr McFee also described the role of other advisory groups, government departments and committees, I will summarise below:

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – has a large and broad portfolio – to name but a few:

  • Science budget
  • Higher Education Council for England
  • Science and Society
  • Technology Strategy Board (and government links within NESTA) – an executive NDPB whose role is to stimulate technology-driven innovation to boost growth and productivity and to promote the bring of research to commercialisation
  • UK Space Agency – an executive agency “at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space”.

Council for Science and Technology (CST) – A top-level, independent UK Government Agency, CST is chaired by the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Prof. Sir Mark Walpott FRS FMedSci and Prof. Dame Nancy Rothwell FRS FMedSci (President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester), The Council for Science and Technology advises the Prime Minister on strategic issues that cut across the responsibilities of individual government departments.

Research councils include, among others:

SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) –  A SAGE’s composition depends on the nature of the emergency, drawing in experts from Government, agencies, academia and industry as necessary.

Effective emergency management relies upon ministers having access to the best available advice in a timely fashion.

Science in Parliament

Within the House of Commons are its select committees, including the Science and Technology Select Committee. At the moment there are several enquiries, including the European and UK Space Agencies.

The European Commission has recently raised a number of issues it sees as “structural obstacles in the current EU/ESA relations” in a Communication to the European Council and Parliament (COM 2012 671).

Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology – exists to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence.

Parliamentary and Scientific Committee – provides a primary focus for scientific and technological issues and is a meeting ground for liaison between all those interested in science policy – parliamentarians, scientific bodies, learned societies, science-based industry, academia and interested individual members. It is the oldest organisation of its kind in the world – over 75 years in existence.

For my interest in space, there is a Parliamentary Space Committee – a cross-party group of MPs and Peers in the UK Parliament who come together to raise awareness of the huge benefits we all enjoy from Britain’s leading role in space.

Other organisations involved in science policy

Foundation for Science and Technology – The Foundation’s purpose is to provide a neutral platform for debate of policy issues that have a science, engineering or technology element.

Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE) – is the leading independent advocate for science and engineering in the UK. CaSE’s mission is to raise the political profile of science and engineering.

Learned societies and chartered institutes – including (among others), the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society, and Institute of Engineering and Technology.

Dr Julian Huppert encouraged us to engage with your MPEarly Day Motions (EDMs) – formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons. EDMs allow MPs to draw attention to an event or cause. MPs register their support by signing individual motions.

Just as politicians ought to be more informed about science issues (which relies on input from scientists), it is as important that scientists understand society’s needs.

If scientists and industry lack the capacity, or the incentive, to understand society’s needs, we will all be less able to use science to help improve our lives.

Dr Huppert encouraged us to provide views to MPs. For instance, the debate on open access was a struggle for parliament to gain an informed public opinion. Also, the House of Commons have few scientists to represent scientific views; whereas the House of Lords is “stuffed” with great scientists. In fact, he noted that some politicians appear to “fear” science and disregard it.

Prof. Peter Main told us about his role in the Institute of Physics and noted SCORE (SCience COmmunity Representing Education) – a partnership of organisations, which aims to improve science education in UK schools and colleges by supporting the development and implementation of effective education policy. The partnership is currently chaired by Professor Julia Buckingham and comprises the Association for Science Education, Institute of Physics, Royal Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and Society of Biology.

He spoke of how learned societies such as the Institute of Physics are a fantastic way in to making your voice heard in shaping the way of science policy. Many produce consultations and reports, which often are used and quoted throughout government. The Institute of Physics has web pages dedicated to physics policy and runs a Physics Advocacy Programme where its members can be involved in helping to influence physics policy.

Throughout the workshop, many useful links were highlighted, including:

The workshop was very informative and gave a clear introduction to science policy, how us as scientists can get involved and can shape the way of government policy. I highly recommend it. It has made me much more aware of how government operates for science and what each of the functions do.

It gears me to seek to play a more active role within my own learned societies and help with my expertise in physics and astronomy. I hope also that I can encourage my own generation of scientists to help shape they way of the future.