Policy-making and parliament in an era of ‘post-truth’

Jerome Mayaud
Nov 28, 2018 · 3 min read

I conducted a Policy Fellowship at the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) during my PhD at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. In this article, I explain how POST translates scientific research into plain English policy briefings for politicians.

In an era of ‘post-truth’, where ‘experts’ are treated with ever more caution, it is increasingly important for researchers to produce and communicate evidence clearly and robustly. However, an enormous volume of information is constantly thrown into the policy realm, so it can be a daunting prospect for both policymakers and academics to interact productively.

Luckily, the UK’s Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) is designed to bridge this gap. POST brings scientific research to parliamentarians (MPs and Lords) in short, accessible formats, primarily through four-page policy briefings called ‘POSTnotes’. The topics range from marine microplastic pollution, through the ‘darknet’ and online anonymity, to electronic cigarettes. In the spirit of accessibility, POSTnotes are freely available to the public, and can be useful sources of information for researchers too. At the start of my PhD, I relied on a timely briefing on civilian drones to inform myself on the legalities of using SoGE’s first departmental drone.

POST is composed of a small, dedicated team of scientists. Their numbers are regularly bolstered by interns whose PhDs are sponsored by UK Research Innovation. I received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to undertake a 3-month Fellowship at POST starting in September 2016. This involved producing my own POSTnote on ‘Reform of Freshwater Abstraction’. The topic was very different to what I normally study for my PhD, so I had to quickly get up to speed by reading lots of academic literature and government reports. I then interviewed over 20 people from industry, academia, NGOs, and government, which proved valuable because I had never formally interviewed experts and practitioners before.

The POST Fellowships are centred around communicating science in a balanced, effective way. The aspect I found most tricky, but ultimately rewarding, was learning how to synthesise a complex topic into jargon-free, simple language. In general, we academics are not great at this! Another difficulty was balancing some very opposing views on a subject matter that is inherently highly political — access to water. Speaking to MPs, I was also interested to hear how their approach to scientific evidence is largely framed by how relevant it might be to their constituents.

It was an incredibly exciting time to be in Parliament: the ‘corridors of power’ were abuzz with the fallout from Brexit, Theresa May’s appointment as the new Prime Minister, and of course Donald Trump’s accession to the White House. Equipped with a pass for the parliamentary estate, I was able to attend a whole host of meetings and events, including Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), a pre-Autumn Statement briefing and several All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings (essentially societies run by MPs). We were lucky enough to get a tour of the Elizabeth Tower to see Big Ben up close, and got to handle some historical documents in the Parliamentary Archives (including death warrants signed by Henry VIII). The Thursday Jerk Chicken Special in the parliamentary canteens will also live long in my memory.

Thousands of handwritten scrolls of Acts and decrees in the Parliamentary Archives (photo: Jerome Mayaud).

This Fellowship has provided me with a great insight into the inner workings of parliament, and has opened my eyes to the multitude of ways in which research can seep (or be pushed) into policymaking. It is our duty as researchers to connect with this world to a certain extent, and if done carefully and creatively, policy engagement can be satisfying and inspiring. I would encourage any PhD students with an interest in policy to get involved. While I can wholeheartedly recommend the POST Fellowship, there are also several other policy internships available through the same scheme, such as at the Government Office for Science and the Royal Society.