CaSE Policy Officer James Tooze reflects on his first appearance in front of a select committee.
In 2017, the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee created an open call to the science community and wider public to pitch their ideas for Committee inquiries. The resulting ‘My Science Inquiry’ led to a successful programme of work, and the Committee decided to run another iteration of the open call in 2019.
CaSE has always taken the opportunity to engage with the S&T Committee, both in submitting evidence to their inquiries and in appearing in evidence sessions. This open call presented us with a great opportunity to directly influence the work of the Committee.
Our proposal & why it’s important
The idea for our pitch to the Committee originated from CaSE’s 2017 report on the use of evidence and policy making. One of our recommendations was for the Commons S&T Committee to review the uptake of and adherence to the Government Chief Scientific Advisor’s (GCSA) guidelines on the use of science and engineering advice in policy making.
In 2010, the GCSA updated these guidelines setting out how scientific advice should be sought and applied across Government. The guidelines also encourage Government to take an open and transparent approach to developing policy, stating that evidence and analysis should be published along-side policy decisions. It has always been a priority of CaSE to see an increasingly evidence-informed approach to policy making in the UK to allow scientific and engineering expertise to be used to make smarter policies for the benefit of the public.
We believe that science and engineering advice and expertise can assist all Government departments in meeting their respective aims. From shaping education policy, to the digitisation of government, to technical advice on building regulation post-Grenfell, or introducing new regulation for AI, all aspects of public policy can benefit. Despite the publication of clear guidelines, concerns remain about the adherence to these guidelines. Many Government departments have been without a Chief Scientific Advisor for extended periods, while the current GCSA has recognised that there are variations in the uptake of scientific advice between departments.
Departments have a huge role to play in reaching the Government’s aims of creating a more research-intensive nation. There have been consistent cuts to departmental R&D budgets over the last decade, a key reason that previous Government targets have stalled. By building capacity for science and engineering advice, departments can not only support their own aims, but a wider understanding of R&D can help to stimulate the science and engineering base in the UK.
Committee hearings are pretty different experiences for external witnesses as they are for Government Ministers and Civil Servants. In the case of My Science Inquiry, the experience is different still. While all appearances in front of Select Committees include an opening statement, my whole pitch was effectively an opening statement. We each had five minutes to present our ideas to the Committee, followed by five minutes of questions.
It is safe to say I was pretty nervous in the run up to the session. As well as my first appearance in front of a Select Committee, it was also the first time I would be speaking in front of live-streaming cameras. I’ve watched our Executive Director, Dr Sarah Main and others appear before, I wanted to try and channel their calmness as I approached the lectern to give my pitch. While I was pacing back and forth practising, I couldn’t help but think about the fantastic opportunity I had been given, not only to present in front of the Committee but have a chance at directly influencing the work of Parliamentarians and hopefully Government policy.
What I also couldn’t help wondering, was how did I get here? This is something I have often reflected on while working at CaSE, considering the volume of incredible opportunities I have been given over the last 18 months. This was certainly the biggest so far – but everything that has come before helped me in my preparation. If nothing else, this opportunity would act as a barometer of where I am and how far I have to go.
The tube journey to Westminster was the final moment for practise, although looking like I was talking to myself got me a few sideways glances. My pitch was fifth of ten, which gave me a little time to settle my nerves. By the time my pitch came around, I’m glad that my instincts kicked in and carried me through. It felt like it passed extremely quickly and sitting here now I can barely remember even talking!
Having the chance to reflect on how I dealt with the day, I’m glad that my nerves didn’t get the best of me and I could say everything I had wanted to. There is definitely a lot of room for improvement but being able to watch myself back helps with understanding how I can progress. The session has left me with the desire to keep improving and doing things I didn’t know I was capable of. Hopefully, it will be the first of many appearances on Parliament TV.