POST notes are produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to provide MPs with enough up to date and relevant information for them to have a comprehensive grasp of key topics that could influence current policy ( for instance, aging populations, agricultural land uses, cybercrime...). These have to be balanced, impartial documents that are strictly factual, rather than advocating a particular policy. Furthermore, no matter how broad the topic, all the information must be contained within 4 A4 pages. Given how I struggle with word limits, this point is particularly daunting!
For the competition, we were given a list of topics to choose from and then sorted into groups. I was teamed up with a chemist, medical biologist and psychologist to produce a POST note on....ageing populations and increasing longevity. Talk about a broad subject! The competition is designed to push us out of our comfort zone and to have us consider areas outside our normal research. But with a topic that impacts on so many aspects of our lives ( health, finance, personal well being...), it is difficult to know where to start!
Fortunately, the competiton launched with a half day workshop on POST writing. Professor Lorraine Maltby started us off with some advice on 'Writing for a non-specialist audience'. She described how people from different scientific disciplines tend to approach a problem in different ways. Engineers are goal oriented and driven to find a solution; social scientists apparently don't see that there IS necessarily a problem or a solution - it's the journey that's more important, and natural scientists float somewhere in the middle. 'We are trained to communicate in the norms of our disciplines' Professor Maltby said 'which is fine if we talk to ourselves, but problematic if we talk to each other'. And this is just within academia - when non-specialists and policy makers are added to the mix, the fun really starts!
As scientists, we take a lot of knowledge for granted when communicating with each other. But given that only 13 % of the current lot of MPs has a science-related degree, a very different language has to be used. Professor Maltby urged us to 'know your audience' and 'write to be understood, not to impress'. This seems the very reverse of writing scientific papers- we presume the audience knows a fair bit about the subject already and we try our hardest to 'wow' them with our research! One also has to consider the time constraints of MPs - if they ask for evidence, it's no good directing them to a primary research paper - they wouldn't have time to read it and probably wouldn't understand it anyway. Apparently the key criterion if success for a POST note is 'The Breakfast Challenge'. If David Cameron reads your note whilst eating his morning wheatabix, will he be totally up to speed on the topic by the time he finishes? Conciseness is key, every word must count although we are fortunately allowed to use diagrams and images ( a JPEG tells 1,042 words)...but only if they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Professor Maltby's final point was to 'revise, revise, revise'; show your note to anybody and everybody and be prepared to spend more time correcting it than actually writing it!
Further practical advice was given by Dr Helen Hicks in the next talk 'Writing a POSTnote – the process and the fellowship experience'. This was especially useful as Dr Hicks is an old hand at publishing POST notes, having authored POST note 418 (Balancing Nature and Agriculture) whilst completing a POST Fellowship scheme (12 week placements that allow early career scientists to get a flavour of Westminster and write a real POST note). She advised us to focus our notes on the IMPACTs that the topic had on people- apparently this 'makes the eyes of an MP light up'. We had to remember that what is important to scientists ( publishing potential, funding, etc) does not necessarily hold true for MPs, who are thinking about what legislation would be acceptable to the public and whether they have a chance of keeping their seat in the next election. Our mission was to consider as many angles as possible to produce a balanced document that summarised the full weight of evidence. But a scientific balance does NOT equal the BBC's view. A good example is climate change: although there is considerable evidence for anthropogenic global warming, on televised/ radio debates, the BBC will always give almost equal air time to a climate change denier, giving the audience the mistaken impression that there is still much uncertainty about whether this phenomenon is actually happening.
Given that we would be working in teams drawn across the whole faculty of science, Dr Nick Worsfold (from The University of Bedfordshire ) then provided some theory in 'Working in multidisciplinary groups'. Terms such as 'interdisciplinary',' multidisciplinary' and 'transdisciplinary' are bandied around a lot these days, especially in attempts to make grant proposals more attractive. But they don't all mean the same thing! 'Multidisciplinary' approaches have at least two different inputs, but these are purely additive and nothing new is gained. Dr Worsfold gave the example of having two scoops of ice cream, one chocolate and the other mint ( although perhaps you have your own preferences?). 'Interdisciplinary' approaches again have multiple inputs but these are combined in a way that adds something on top of these. In the ice cream analogy, this would involve combining different flavours with additional ingredients to make a knicker bicker glory. As for 'transdisciplinary' methods, these are more focused on a process that can make a completely new product. Hence, eggs, flour, sugar, milk become...a cake!
Which is all very well and philosophical but why do we NEED multidisciplinarity? Quite simply, to solve real world problems. Dr Worsford argued that disciplines are not so very different if they approach problems in a similar way but working together allows new perspectives to be be brought together on complex issues. This is vital for comprehensive services, such as healthcare, which require the whole package to be considered, rather than individual strands, in order for any solution to be successful.
But working together requires a 'common language'. What a mathematician would describe with an equation, a biologist would prefer to see in a graph. As for politicians, very often the message is conveyed by words alone! Hence, the role of POST notes in translating primary research into terms that can be digested by the masses. Even when scientists can communicate successfully with public representatives, however, the result is not always what we, as researchers, would prefer. 'It is perfectly legitimate for elected policy members, representing their constituencies, to look at all the scientific evidence and ignore it' Dr Worsford argued. 'This is part of democracy. I would be really worried if the House of Commons was full of scientists - good science is only one part of the debate'.
That may be so, but weighing up the scientific evidence is quite enough for me to be getting on with in the meantime! After a quick brainstorming session in our teams, juggling diaries to squeeze in the next meeting and rapidly exchanging email addresses, we then departed back to our very real worlds of individual research. From the lofty palaces of Westminster, back to my growth cabinet to top up my Arabidopsis seedlings with enough water for the weekend. It's been a busy week!