Evidence Week: My Journey to the UK Parliament

It would be difficult to beat my first, exciting experience exploring the Houses of Parliament. I was there this summer to help the charity Sense about Science run a revolutionary, and in my opinion completely necessary, initiative called Evidence Week. Evidence Week equips members of Parliament with the tools they need to interrogate evidence from the social sciences and STEM across a range of policy issues, so that research has a real-world impact at the highest level. If there is one thing that I wish to leave you with after reading this, it’s a burning desire to support Evidence Week and urge your MP to do the same. Understanding the evidence on an issue has the potential to improve policy-making and benefit society. This is essential in the times that we live in, and everyone needs to know it!

I firmly believe that we are all born as natural social scientists; we have an innate curiosity towards understanding how our fellow humans operate in society. It is this inborn interest that has drawn me towards public policy, which aims to define the principles and designs that can be used to shape our society for the better. That is why I joined the charity’s Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network – a unique network of 4,000 early career researchers and professionals across Europe who are committed to playing an active role in public discussions of science and evidence – and jumped at the chance to volunteer at Evidence Week.

Evidence Week encourages MPs to seek out and scrutinize information on pressing social issues by speaking to researchers about their methods and findings.

It’s also a chance to check out organisations such as Sense about Science, who make it their purpose to stick up for the public interest in sound science and evidence. This independent campaigning charity initiated Evidence Week in 2018 in collaboration with the House of Commons Library, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. The aim is to produce and provide easily digestible research insights and tools that can help parliamentarians – and all of us – to make sense of the explosion of research and data, so that we can harness it to help shape a better society. These research insights came in the form of “Evidence Pods” set up in the House of Commons over a week in June. The pods are stands where researchers themselves held three-minute briefings for MPs, peers and their staff on topical issues.

Members of the public also get involved in Evidence Week: coming to Parliament specially to meet their MPs and telling them they expect them to seek out evidence. It was truly heart-warming to see people from a vast array of backgrounds come together in the common cause of conveying this message to our MPs.

The exceptional thing about Evidence Week is that it is open to absolutely everyone – I found myself chatting to MPs, baronesses, schoolchildren and tourists. Not only are the pods open to all, but this was also the highest-attended event for MPs in 2018 – not bad for its inaugural year. And the 2019 event is set to repeat this laudable feat. All of this works together to help researchers consider what tools and resources MPs need and reminds them that the public expects them to seek out evidence. This helps social science and STEM research to have a public impact.  

For me, highlights from the 2019 pods included a fascinating discussion on the psychology of road users. This was with researchers from the University of Nottingham, and they gave a particularly interesting bit of advice on how to avoid all-too-common motorbike collisions: tell yourself out loud that you have seen a bike, to make it stick in your visual memory.

I was also enthralled by a tour of the “virtual human,” a 3D model of each unique human body built up from many forms of sensory data, that in the very near future will be used to provide bespoke medical care. This was presented by the Biochemical Society, CompBioMed and UCL. Other pods ranged across community inequalities, anti-microbial resistance and the pupil premium. Thinking back on it now, there is not one Evidence Pod that wasn’t intriguing and eye-opening.

Communicating scientific ideas, uncertainties and conclusions to help them have impact in the real world takes a lot of work, for most researchers at least. To this end, I have helped set up an international community called SciPEN, which is all about researchers interacting with policymakers, and how to bridge the gap between the two. Check out the website if you are a researcher, or if you want to find out more. Come and join the evidence movement.  

My final message to you is to join the VoYS network, come down and sample the majesty of Parliament, but do it with panache, and make a difference by letting your MP know that we all value robust evidence so that they can create strong policies for us all. Come and embrace your inner social scientist with me. See you there next year!  

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Oscar Williams

I am currently completing my PhD in nanotechnology between UCL and Imperial College London, where I have been the lead of an outreach society for green energy, a journalist for Physics World and have co-founded SciPEN, a network for research interfacing with policy. I am also a member of Sense about Science’s Voice of Young Science network.

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