21 February 2014

Energy Lancaster fellow Alona Armstrong got an inside view of policy development when she spent a month working with the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee

How do scientific researchers get their findings to impact the world outside academia? My research on how ecosystems respond to renewable energy generation, will produce knowledge that has value not just to scientists, but to industries that use and deploy renewable energy technologies, and policy makers that legislate on energy matters. So I challenged myself to find a way to ensure that the knowledge from my research gets into the hands of those that could put it to use. Hopefully to help ensure the deployment of renewables is optimised not just for energy production but other ecosystem services.

I came up with a plan: (1) learn more about how these very different industry and policy worlds’ work; (2) establish good networks; (3) ensure, without compromising scientific integrity or value, my research is as policy and industry relevant as possible. The Energy and Climate Change Select Committee (ECC) seemed a good place to start and I managed to arrange a one month NERC funded policy work shadow placement there. 

Day 1, I’m walking from my accommodation towards Tothill Street thinking, ‘the Thames is somewhat larger than the Lune’, ‘lady in heels on a Boris Bike’, and ‘that’s Big Ben, not the Ashton Memorial’. Suddenly it hit me, I’m a scientist and I’ve thrown myself into the political world, not just on the fringes but into the thick of it, in London, in Parliament. I realise I’m going to have a different life for the next month.

I arrive at Tothill Street dressed in a suit and the security guard calls up. Someone comes down to meet me – he’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt. ‘Wardrobe failure! I want my jeans!’ Ah, but he’s just cycled in and he’s soon in a suit. The first day starts – security clearances, PIN numbers to remember, ID badge to wear at all times, policemen and tourists EVERYWHERE, meet the ECC house staff team, corridors it feels easy to get lost in, first oral session on local energy, head buzzing walk back to my accommodation!

Day 2, we discuss more of what I’ll be doing. It transpires it isn’t work-shadowing its working – I’m to be treated as a committee specialist for a month, not looking over people’s shoulder, but doing it, contributing to the ECC scrutiny of Government.

It initially sounds daunting but I quickly realise what an amazing opportunity I have. And, of course, it was all to be checked by Tom and Sarah Hartwell-Naguib, the Clerk (head of the ECC staff). Also, after a little reflection I realised much of it was what I’ve been trained to do as a scientist – read evidence, critically assess, identify contradictions/missing aspects, and summarise it in an understandable document.

The rest of the month flew by. I was reviewing submitted written evidence from a range of organisations and individuals, preparing briefs for MPs based on this material, selecting witnesses for oral sessions with the MPs, attending those oral sessions, writing a technical note for the MPs, and contributing to final reports that were sent to Government.

There was a lot to take in. It’s a really active committee - during my time there were inquiries covering bioenergy, energy prices, profits and poverty, Severn Barrage, local energy and UK oil refining. It made me appreciate the sheer breadth of topics ECC covers. Some MPs knowledge was immense and they dug to the bottom, really challenged some witnesses. Watch some parliamentary TV (it’s all on-line or live on BBC Parliament) and see them in action! I saw both Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and Michael Fallon, Minister of State for Energy, give oral evidence to ECC, as well as various other senior representatives from industry, local authorities, academia and charities.

It was a jam-packed month, during which I learnt much. I’ve started to understand the policy world much better and have the foundations of a policy network that I can continue to grow. I got an impression of the broader energy challenges faced within the UK. It really drove home the massive challenge that DECC faces – security, affordability, and low carbon.

I learnt about some of the industrial and policy considerations of energy generation and supply and associated legislation. Reviewing evidence taught me how to write good evidence, which I’ve since put to practice in a DECC consultation. I now know of the vast resources that are available on the Parliament websites. I saw inquiries from the inside and then I saw them on the BBC news page – the power of media! I saw how I could incorporate aspects of policy in my teaching.

But did it help with my original goal; can I get relevant outcomes of my research into the policy arena? I hope so, that’s part of why I do what I do. The worlds are different – timescales, remit, concerns. I’m looking in the right direction and I’m motivated - ask me in a few years…

Was it worth it? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes.

Thanks to both NERC for the funding and the ECC House staff, especially Sarah Hartwell-Naguib and Tom Leveridge, for the opportunity to work with them. 


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