Last week I was lucky enough to be welcomed back to Sense about Science (SaS) to help run Evidence Week in Parliament. The first of its kind, Evidence Week brought together MPs, peers, parliamentary services and people from all walks of life across the UK to talk about why evidence matters.
The week was really eye-opening. A number of MPs/MP’s aides were very frank that evidence, data, and/or statistics were fundamental to their decision making. Luciana Berger MP for Liverpool Wavertree said “Evidence is critical to the formation of policy to ensure it is well informed, will make a difference, and be based on reality”; Preet Gill MP for Birmingham Edgbaston said “We use evidence all the time – I couldn’t imagine working without an evidence base”. Jo Platt MP for Leigh and Liz Twist MP for Blaydon also agreed that we are not living in a post-truth era; citizens care about decisions that impact their lives having an evidence base.
While in Parliament I submitted a green card to request my local MP Ben Bradshaw to come discuss his views on evidence – I had no idea that constituents had the right to do this. In response Ben came to our stand, gave support of evidence-based policy, and also told me about a link between his office and Exeter University – each year a top scientist from the university joins Ben in parliament for a week, enabling important bridges to form between fundamental research and policy.
Although l overheard a handful of individuals comment in jest that there was no place for evidence in parliament, this outlook was clearly the minority. This made me feel like the debate surrounding utilising evidence to inform policy is really quite polarised, with far more weight for than against, at least for the MPs I engaged with (whether they were a representative sample of the views in Parliament is of course debatable!).
I had an extremely positive week. First, it was really enlightening to get better to grips with how decisions are made in Parliament, and simply how our country is run. I got to watch Margot James – Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – pass legislation surrounding data security (the nitty gritty I couldn’t tell you). I also got to visit The House of Commons during a debate surrounding post-Brexit trade deals with Japan, talk data and AI with Stephen Metcalfe MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock, and enjoy wine on the Pavilion Terrace overlooking the Thames during probably one of the hottest days of the year. I also had some great conversations surrounding data and evidence with other individuals/organisations including The Commons Library, Office for National Statistics, Meta-Evidence, SAGE, and early career researchers from the across the country.
My take-home message from the week was that many MPs from different parties do use evidence to inform their decisions, but there are serious concerns regarding data quality, misinterpreted results, bias and confirmation bias, missing data, a lack of interdisciplinary research, and lack of evidence being publicly available. Having said that, Parliament did prove to me that things are very much moving in the right direction.
SaS is an independent campaigning charity that challenges the misrepresentation of science and evidence in public life. In 2017 I completed a 3-month internship in their EU office around the corner from the EU Parliament in Brussels. Here, I organised a workshop in Warsaw to provide early career researchers with the skills they need to engage the public, media and politicians with their research, and thereby improve their societal impact, among many other things.
If you want to know more, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas Chaloner, current second year SWBio DTP student