CUSPE visit to POST

Friday 16th of November 2012 saw the CUSPE committee excitedly gathering in Cambridge Station to catch the 08:50hrs train to Kings Cross. The purpose of the trip was to visit Dr. Chris Tyler, the Director of the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST), and we had two main objectives for the day. Firstly, we wanted to propose CUSPE’s future plans to Dr. Tyler so that we could obtain advice and input on engaging early career policy makers, particularly those candidates on the Civil Service Fast Stream. Secondly, in line with the CUSPE mantra of reciprocal professional development, the committee was interested in learning more about how policy is created and implemented. In particular, we were all interested in furthering our understanding of the Parliamentary framework.

Prior to our meeting, Dr. Tyler was kind enough to arrange for us all to go on a tour of Parliament. Having arrived on time to Westminster and thankfully having got through security with no major problems, we gathered in the 900 year old Westminster Hall. The tour guide didn’t hesitate to whisk us away from here to begin our exploration, and so through St. Stephen’s Hall, into the Central Lobby and along to the Royal Gallery we went. As well as the expected royal paintings, decorations and accompaniments, unexpected delights included an original facsimile of the Magna Carta (one of only four) and a copy of Charles I’s death warrant signed by none other than Sidney Sussex’s proudest alumnus, Oliver Cromwell. The tour was very insightful and the highlight was bumping into none other than Baron Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary 2005-2011) in the House of Lords. CUSPE President Patrick Wollner, along with committee member Edward Oughton, ceased the opportunity to shake his hand and congratulate him on his excellent lecture the previous evening, in what had been dubbed by many as being the highlight of the 2012 Cambridge Public Policy Lecture Series.

After the tour, we met Dr. Tyler in Westminster Hall and began to mentally prepare ourselves for the meeting ahead. POST operates out of Portcullis House and much to our delight we were taken through the secure underground walkway linked to Parliament, bypassing the hustle and bustle of Bridge Street; something that made us all feel like real Parliamentary insiders. Once in Portcullis House we were shown to a roundtable meeting room with a lovely vista of Parliament, Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey. The committee quickly organised themselves for the meeting and helped themselves to the tea and coffee that POST kindly provided.

Now it was down to the nitty-gritty. While the likes of Tim Guilliams, Co-Founder and Vice-President of CUSPE already has a proven track record in working with Dr. Tyler, the rest of the committee introduced themselves one by one and explained a bit about their background and interests. It was to CUSPE President Patrick Wollner that the responsibility for conveying the society’s agenda fell, with other members chipping in with relevant points or greater nuance when needed. As Patrick explained with confidence, CUSPE is on the one hand a platform to promote exchange between Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and policy makers, while on the other it is a tool for ECRs to develop necessary long-term connections to move into Government departments. Proposals were also outlined to Dr. Tyler for various event options which the committee has been putting thought to, such as lectures, roundtable discussions, policy immersion events, and the plans for both a domestic and European conference.

Once complete we were given a great deal of advice about who in Parliament and Government to engage, how to engage them, how to actually convey the benefits of these events to those in charge of Continuing Professional Development (CPD), where to locate our events and how we can make CUSPE of most relevance to both parties. All of the discussion was of great use in refining CUSPE’s approach, particularly as these are embryonic times for the post-graduate society. We very much valued the input of Dr. Tyler, particularly given his wealth of experience as the Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) at the University of Cambridge.

Now it was Dr. Tyler’s turn to explain to us all the details of POST, as well as some broader, more general Parliamentary specifics necessary to understanding the interconnection between science and policy. This discussion began with a recap of some of the detail from the tour of Parliament, principally on Parliamentary Democracy, before he delved into areas which even the most astute individuals did not know. Of great interest, and most importantly of all for a committee comprising of over ten different nationalities, Dr Tyler explicitly explained the difference between Parliament and Government. Parliament examines what the Government is doing,  makes new laws, holds the power to set taxes and debates the issues of the day with the House of Commons and House of Lords each playing an important role in Parliament’s overall work. Alternatively, Government and its respective Departments implement the decisions of Parliament. This was a useful distinction for us all to take note of and something which Dr. Tyler said is a mistake frequently made by many.

As Dr. Tyler divulged, POST has two main aims. Firstly, it provides scientific advice and analysis for Parliament. One way in which it does this is by creating and disseminating pier reviewed Postnotes on specific topics, from measuring wellbeing, to advanced manufacturing, to energy use behaviour change. The task of creating these Postnotes certainly seems challenging (especially for academics) as seconded researchers are commissioned to condense entire research areas into no more than four pages of plain English (!). Secondly, POST aims to build scientific capacity in both staff and Parliamentarians by building robust and usable bridges between Government and academia. Interestingly, POST began in the late 1980s as a charity set up by various MPs who witnessed the need for Parliament to have greater scientific input on matters of public policy. Apparently, a little know lady by the name of Margret Thatcher contributed the first donation of £100 to the charity, stating (and I paraphrase) that waving her cheque around to others should galvanise some extra support for this sensible cause!

After further discussion on the role of cross-party Select Committees the meeting rounded off to a close with Dr. Tyler complementing his explanation of POST with some supplementary material (POSTNOTES and mailing list information). There was just enough time left before Dr. Tyler’s next meeting for us (or rather for Patrick) to take the obligatory CUSPE photograph. Still buzzing with excitement we made our way through Portcullis House to the exit where we thanked Dr. Tyler for his time, advice and encouragement. All in all the day was a complete success and was absolutely fascinating to participate in. The event not only helped CUSPE to refine its objectives and delivery plan, but it completely lived up to all expectations in terms of the committee furthering its knowledge of Parliament, Government and the policy making process. Visiting Parliament and meeting Gus O’Donnell knocked a few more ticks off our list of aspirations… so role on the next committee visit!

Edward Oughton

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