Bioethics and Parliament: my Fellowship at POST

In September 2016 I arrived at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) to begin a three-month Fellowship funded by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The aim of the Fellowship is to produce a four-page briefing document for parliamentarians (known as a ‘POSTnote’) on an area of science and technology that raises bioethical issues. The topic that the POST Board had chosen was ‘integrity in research’, a subject which built on previous work conducted by the Nuffield Council into the culture of research in the UK.

This was no small task. The topic was broadly framed, and covered a number of different subsets of issues. It required a consideration of the current pressures facing researchers, and the current mechanisms for supporting integrity in the UK (of which there are many), as well as an assessment of whether these were sufficient, or whether another form of oversight, such as regulation, might be preferable. It also explored ways to reduce the institutional pressures on researchers, and address concerns about integrity. These included greater openness and transparency (through open access, publication of data sets, and registration of trials); enhancing training and oversight, and realigning incentives for researchers, to ensure that they are properly rewarded for conducting rigorous, accurate and transparent work.

Much of the process of researching a POSTnote involves interviewing key stakeholders in the field. During the course of the research I interviewed everyone from funders to publishers, professional academies to governmental sources, academics to Peers, and charities to MPs. As an academic lawyer by background, I had a tendency to think that the answers to most questions could be found in books. This project showed me how much more could be gained from talking to people – in fact, most of the information presented in my POSTnote was gathered during interviews.

Not known for my concision, trying to fit all of this into just four pages seemed like an impossible task, especially when they told us it has to follow a prescribed template, so you can’t even configure the margins and make the font impenetrably small! Fortunately there was back up on hand in the form of my supervisor, Dr Sarah Bunn, who was expert in the art of POSTnote-synthesis, and much less sentimental when it came to culling carefully crafted sentences!

A POSTnote is designed to be apolitical, balanced, neutral and is not supposed to make recommendations to Parliament. None of these things come naturally to lawyers, whose prerogative is generally to have an opinion on everything, and tell anyone who will listen. I was pleased therefore to learn that following publication of the POSTnote, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee had decided to launch an inquiry into research integrity. One of the best (and most terrifying) experiences of my time in Parliament was the opportunity to meet the Committee to discuss my work, and brief them on the key issues and debates in this area. I look forward to seeing the Committee’s recommendations on what changes need to be made.

But as well as the research, three months getting to roam the corridors of Westminster made for a truly memorable experience. I had the chance to attend a tour of the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben; observe Prime Minister’s Questions; go to carol services in St Mary Undercroft (the crypt beneath the Palace) and the Speaker’s House (some fellows even managed a Speaker-selfie); and watch the Foreign Affairs Committee grilling David Davis on what Brexit actually means (other than Brexit). With a team of dedicated and hungry Fellows we managed to explore most of the eateries and watering holes in the Palace, do some excellent political celeb spotting, and even have a team outing to London Zoo. Following a conference on Brexit hosted by POST, I was also asked to co-author a blog post for ‘Second Reading’(the House of Commons Library blog), on why engagement with the academic community was important to Parliament during the process of withdrawing from the EU.

As well as providing some welcome respite from the PhD, the Fellowship presented a fantastic opportunity to see first hand the workings of Parliament, to work with policy-makers and see how legislative change works, and to learn more about the contribution of bioethics to policy, from the initial stage, all the way through to enactment. It was an excellent experience and I recommend it to anyone thinking of applying.

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