On a sunny Tuesday morning at 8.30 am I found myself passing through security to enter the Palace of Westminster. The home of the MPs and peers is not obvious territory for a PhD student. However, I was here as a Voice of Young Science (VoYS) volunteer for the Sense about Science Evidence Week. Sense about Science in an independent charity that aims to scrutinise the use of evidence in the public domain and to challenge misleading or misrepresented science. I have written previously here about attending one of their workshops about peer review, and also here about contributing to a campaign aiming to assess the transparency of evidence used in government policy documents.
The purpose of evidence week was to bring together MPs, peers, parliamentary services and people from all walks of life to generate a conversation about why evidence in policy-making matters. The week was held in collaboration with the House of Commons Library, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, in partnership with SAGE Publishing. Individual events and briefings were contributed to by further organisations including the Royal Statistical Society, Alliance for Useful Evidence and UCL. Each day had a different theme to focus on including ‘questioning quality’ and ‘wicked problems’ i.e. superficially simple problems which turn out to be complex and multifaceted.
Throughout the parliamentary week, which lasts from Monday to Thursday, Sense about Science had a stand in the Upper Waiting Hall of Parliament. This location is right outside committee rooms where members of the public will give evidence to one of the many select committees. These are collections of MPs from multiple parties whose role it is to oversee the work of government departments and agencies, though their role in gathering evidence and scrutiny can sometimes have significance beyond just UK policy-making (for example this story documenting one committee’s role in investigating the relationship between Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the propagation of ‘fake news’). The aim of this stand was to catch the attention of both the public, parliamentary staff, and MPs, and to engage them in conversations about the importance of evidence. Alongside the stand, a series of events and briefings were held within Parliament on the topic of evidence. Titles included ‘making informed decisions about health care’ and ‘it ain’t necessarily so… simple stories can go wrong’.
Each day brought a new set of VoYS volunteers to the campaign, both to attend to the stand and to document and help out with the various events during the week. Hence I found myself abandoning my own research for a day to contribute to Day 2 of the campaign, focusing on navigating data and statistics. I had a busy day; beyond chatting to people at the stand I also took over the VoYS Twitter account to document some of the day’s key events, attended a briefing about the 2021 census, and provided a video roundup for the day (which can be viewed here!). For conversations that we had at the stand we were asked to particularly focus on questions in line with the theme of the day including ‘if a statistic is the answer, what was the question?’ and ‘where does this data come from?’
Trying to engage people at the stand proved to be challenging; the location of the stand meant people passing by were often in a rush to committee meetings. Occasionally the division bells, announcing a parliamentary vote, would also ring and a rush of MPs would flock by, great for trying to spot the more well-known MPs but less good for convincing them to stop to talk about data and statistics. In practice this meant I and other VoYS members had to adopt a very assertive approach in talking to people, a style that is generally not within the comfort zone of most scientists! However this did lead to some very interesting conversations, including with a paediatric surgeon who was advocating to the health select committee for increasing the investment in research to treat tumours in children. He posed a very interesting question: given a finite amount of funding for tumour research, how much of this should be specifically directed towards improving the survival outcomes of younger patients and how much to older patients? We also asked MPs and members of the public to add any evidence questions they had to the stand. A member of the public wondered, ‘are there incentives to show what doesn’t work?’ and Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, asked ‘how can politicians better understand uncertainty in data?’
The week proved to be a success. Over 60 MPs from across parliamentary parties, including government ministers, interacted with some aspect of evidence week, accounting for around 10% of the total number of MPs. Also, a wider audience who engaged with the stand included parliamentary staff and members of the public. Sense about Science highlighted two outcomes after the event: one was the opening event where members of various community groups met with over 40 MPs and peers and had the opportunity to explain why evidence was important to them, whether their interest was in beekeeping, safe standing at football matches or IVF treatment; the second was the concluding round-table event regarding what people require from evidence gathering. SAGE will publish an overview of this round-table as a discussion paper in Autumn.
On a personal level, I had a very valuable experience. Firstly, it was great opportunity to visit somewhere as imposing and important as the Houses of Parliament and to contribute to such an exciting and innovate week. I was able to have some very interesting conversations with both MPs and members of the public. I found that generally everybody was enthusiastic about the need for increased use and transparency of evidence in policy-making. The challenge, instead, is to ensure that both policy-makers and the general public have the tools they need to collect, assess and apply evidence.