26 April 2018

James Tooze reflects on his day in Birmingham for this year’s Microbiology conference.

It was a real pleasure to be invited to speak at the Essential Skills: Engaging in policy session organised by Paul, Roya, Peter and the team at the Microbiology Society. I had been notified that the session was oversubscribed, surely a sign that engaging in policymaking has clawed its way up the list of interests of scientists. Brexit has and will continue to cause uncertainty for scientists and engineers in the UK, but it certainly has galvanised the community in fighting for the best possible outcome.

A short ice-breaker started the session, finding out why the delegates were interested in learning more about policy and science, and issues that were particularly pertinent to them. There was a wide array of answers, but most common was feeling like influencing policy could help to make a difference, which is certainly something that resonates with why I wanted to get into policy.

Kicking off the short talks was Sarah Bunn of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), who talked about the differences between Parliament, Government and government departments, and what this meant for their interactions. POST are involved at the heart of Westminster, who’s work informs a broad array of people in any number of topics. They are perhaps most well knows for their briefings, called POSTnotes, of which they produce dozens a year. Sarah went on to talk more about how they interact with a number of stakeholders in their work, in providing evidence around public policy issues. POST also run many professional development courses, and manage a PhD Fellowship programme.

Next up was me, and while zealously pacing I talked about all of the work that CaSE does in seeking to influence government policy. Before briefly covering why science & engineering should have a seat in policymaking and CaSE’s main areas of focus, I talked more about how we seek to have an impact with our work. Making sure that we are as useful as we can be with a variety of different audiences is important for us, as is making sure that we demonstrate why our policy positions and recommendations are important for the whole of the UK.  

Paul Richards, policy manager at the Microbiology Society went on to talk about how delegates could seek to get involved with their society, and some of the ways increased input helps with their organisation’s interactions with us at CaSE. The Society has a number of other collaborations in different policy areas, that have helped to put them at the interface of Microbiology and Government policy. Paul Kellam, Chair of the Microbiology Society policy committee, gave his experiences of appearing in front of a select committee and talked all about what happens at the end of the horseshoe.

Following a short Q&A and coffee break, Sarah Foxen, also of POST, set the delegates off to write a policy brief of their own. The challenge for the delegates was to write their own abridged version of a POSTnote on a given scientific topic. Drawing on the talks throughout the session, the participants set about highlighting the current issues with topics such as climate change and antimicrobial resistance, in a way that a non-specialist audience would understand and how best to engage policymakers in their writing. Perhaps the most challenging part of the exercise was asking the delegates to identify specific areas of action that the Government could take to mitigate negative changes in a challenging area or enhance the prospects of a new technology.

The session was closed by Peter Cotgreave, Chief Executive of the Microbiology Society (and former CaSE Director!), thanking the attendees and inviting them to get involved in shaping the policy work at the Microbiology Society. I would like to extend my thanks again to Paul, Roya, Peter and the Microbiology Society for inviting me to speak, it was great to be at the fantastic session and a real pleasure to be part of.

Photo credit: Microbiology Society

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