Friday, 20 January 2017

An education in how research influences parliament, policy & practice

Guest post by Charlotte Kitchen, PhD student, Mental Health Research Centre, Durham University

It seems fitting that my first post for the Fuse Open Science Blog is about my time in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).

I have just returned from a three-month secondment from my PhD; this meant relocating from Durham University’s Queens Campus to POST's Westminster Offices in London. As you can imagine this was a bit of a culture shock for a country girl but it was also an amazing opportunity that I would definitely recommend to others. POST is Parliament’s in-house source of independent, balanced and accessible analysis of public policy issues from across the biological, physical and social sciences, as well as engineering and technology topic areas. POST is responsible for producing briefings (usually four page summaries of a topic) for MPs and Peers in order to place the findings of academic research on these topics into a policy context for Parliamentary use. The main mechanism for achieving this is the recruitment of POST fellows (that's me!) who are PhD students who undertake short placements with the objective of producing a briefing on a topic area of interest to Parliament.

The Parliamentary Archives
Big Ben (Elizabeth Tower) at Christmas

I was tasked with preparing a ‘POSTbrief’ on ‘selective education’ which was a responsive policy briefing based on a mini literature review. This was in reaction to the current debate on the issue and the government consultation on grammar schools, which closed in December 2016. I was required to research and write the brief, interview a range of leading academics and stakeholders, attend debates in the Houses of Commons and Lords as well as liaising with the House of Commons Education Select Committee. My PhD is in adolescent mental health so the prospect of working in a new topic area was daunting but it turned out to be a challenging and rewarding experience that has definitely improved my confidence, ability to articulate complex information and writing skills.

Whilst working at POST, I was asked to support the House of Commons Education Select Committee during the Autumn 2016 term - a lot more interesting than it sounds! I got to meet various MPs, attend a committee meeting where I was asked to brief the committee on the topic and had the opportunity to feed directly into the everyday work of Parliament. The enquiry the Committee was undertaking on the topic will report shortly. My work at POST culminated in the publication of an open-access parliamentary briefing 'Academic Evidence on Selective Secondary Education' which was circulated to MPs on the Education Select Committee and others with an interest in the area. I also had the opportunity to undertake some speech writing for an MP (under supervision, of course) just to keep things interesting!

Mr Speaker selfie
The take home message of my blog is don’t be afraid to apply for a POST fellowship - like I was! Before I applied, people said they were too competitive and it wasn’t a good idea to take time off during your PhD but three months away from your thesis is a small price to pay for the experiences I have had in the Houses of Parliament. Where else do you work where there is not one or two, but three gift shops!? One of the more surreal highlights had to be a selfie with the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons whilst attending a Christmas Carol Service. In all seriousness, this fellowship has added a parliamentary publication to my CV, provided me with much needed policy experience, opened my eyes to how research influences parliament, policy and subsequently practice. I learnt many of the practical ways you can get your research noticed: from keeping an up to date academic biography and profile, publishing open-access so non-academic institutions can access your work, producing blogs to make your work more accessible to non-specialists and utilising social media to publicise your research.

The whole experience at POST is one I will not forget in a hurry and it was made possible through funding from the British Psychological Society; the closing date for this year’s fellowship scheme is 31 August 2017. There are other funders who have different deadlines throughout the year such as research councils, societies and charities. For more established academics there are also opportunities to work more closely with parliament that are worth considering.

And finally, the obligatory tourist shot...

Me and my mum

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