In a new podcast for staff at the University of Portsmouth we discuss the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee with Dr Guy Hembury, Deputy Director in RIS and one of the Committee’s Vice Presidents. We find out why the Committee is important for representing the scientific community and how engaging with Parliament could be rewarding and worthwhile for your career.

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We will be featuring guests and a variety of topics about research and innovation that we feel will be of interest to you. Today, I will be talking to Dr Guy Hembury, Deputy Director Commercialisation and External Partnerships in Research and Innovation Services (RIS), about his role in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, and talk about how you can start engaging with Parliament in different ways relating to your research. Tell me a little bit about you, your role at the University and your role in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.

My name is Guy Hembury and I’m one of two deputy directors in Research Innovation Services, so I’m the director for commercialisation and external partnerships. A few of the teams within RIS report into me and I try to provide them, hopefully with some support. I would say my role is to support us as a community across the University, helping in the outcomes of our research, of our knowledge exchange activities to have that positive impact on society that we’re all after really. And importantly for that in turn, to benefit us individually and collectively. I have responsibilities for the new KEF and the KE concordat submissions and make sure that we learn from those and implement those lessons learned and improve the knowledge exchange that we do. I work closely with the faculty innovation leads to achieve this, so that’s a very, very quick tour across what I do.

And what’s your role in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee?

My role in PNSC, as we call it, is one of five vice presidents of the committee. The way it’s set up is we’ve got a current president, Lord Burse, and we quite nicely the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles have been previous presidents. The Parliamentary Science Committee is technically an all party parliamentary group and APPG. Strictly speaking, we’re the oldest and original of these groups, so we were set up in 1939, just before the Second World War. At the time, it was realised there was there was obviously a war coming and there wasn’t a good enough link between Parliament and the scientific industry and scientific academia, and it was felt that this would be key to the war. So PNSC was set up in order to facilitate that engagement, and that engagement has, or that remit to facilitate that engagement has continued to [this] day. So as a vice president and also a member of council, we’re responsible for the strategic direction and the operations of the committee. So I remember the programme committees and that works quite closely with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee just to help set that agenda.

I also work on what’s called STEM for Britain. STEM for Britain’s really exciting is the biggest scientific event in Parliament each year. What we do is we invite early career researchers from across all the scientific disciplines to bring posters up to one of the big suites, normally the Atlee Suite in parliament and present their posters to MPs, members of the The Upper House and we, not we as a committee, we invite people to come and give out prizes to those early career researchers, and that’s just great. And one of the reasons why it’s great is that we’re really successful in bringing MPs in because all the MPs want to see the young researchers who are from their constituency.

It’s a really good way of just getting that engagement with MPs, and it’s great to bring young people into parliament. It’s an interesting, exciting place. And so that’s a good thing that we do.

Guy Hembury on STEM for Britain

Another, another thing that I work on or support helping, really is what we call Newton’s Apple. Newton’s Apple has been running for a while and what this is, it’s a programme where we have a number of normally retired members of Parliament, normally people who’ve been part of the select committees, they go round to universities and provide a day of engaging, anybody who wants really, but normally younger students, normally younger, early career researchers, just engaging them in understanding the parliamentary process, how they can engage in it, why they should engage with it, and also lots of funny anecdotes about these people’s life in parliament over the years.

Another thing that’s related to the PNSC that I do is something called the Parliamentary Affairs Committee, and that’s it’s an informal group. It’s a grouping of the policy leads from all of the major scientific and engineering societies from around the UK. And so we meet a number of times a year to discuss scientific issues that are impacting on society and policy at the time and really just trying to understand each other’s positions and maybe develop entirely non-binding common approaches to maybe some of the things that are going on. So, as you can say within the parliamentary scientific committee, there’s a lot of things that go on.

But coming right back to the start, what I’d say is that it’s running our core meetings and those core meetings are once a month, have a particular topic we want to discuss. We bring in experts from academia, from business, from elsewhere into parliament and all members of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee can join and we’ll have an evening where we discuss a particular issue from lots of different contexts. And the idea is for parliamentarians to be able to meet these people engage with them and basically get an understanding of those scientific issues from people who are experts in their own area.

What problems does this committee solve?

In part, let’s say the problem that we solve is almost the same. As I mentioned before, the reason why we were set up was to help parliamentarians from both houses engage with the broad scientific community. So for me, this is all of STEM. So you’ve got MPs who are working hard, very busy lives, and they may well not be experts in the scientific disciplines at the moment out of 600 and something  MPs, I think we have about 45 who have a real, genuine scientific educational background, or at least, let’s say, university education. And so therefore, in a sense, it’s to some people it’s a bit like a foreign language. The problem that we solve is helping MPs engage with the scientific agenda because science impacts on so much of our of our lives. So from an MP’s perspective, that’s working on policies and issues that impact on society, on the environment, on culture, on their constituents, the voters and the problem we solve is to help them meet and engage with the scientific community so that they can help them formulate and influence their thinking, their ideas and vice versa. We’re there as a conduit, so people within the same broad scientific community, whether that’s academics, people in industry, people in business are able to come in and engage in some way with those politicians with that political process. That’s fundamentally what we try and do. And we we do that by making sure that we are, let’s say how best to say we are independent.

So as an all party parliamentary group there has been, over the years, some sort of scandals about various parliamentary All-Party Parliamentary groups accepting money from various sources to influence what they do and the questions that they ask. The way that we work is that our members pay a fee. So for a university that’s about 300 pounds a year. We have about 60 university members and quite a lot more in terms of businesses. And that’s all you can do.

You cannot then influence the things that we do and the way that we go about it, but you can engage in that process in that way the parliamentary and scientific committee, we remain a trusted, let’s say, engagement and information source for parliamentarians and Whitehall.

But that’s ultimately the the problem is that mutual communication, engagement and mutual understanding, because often it’s the case that people who’ve worked all their life in hard science or natural science in academia or industry don’t necessarily appreciate the pressures and the understanding and the influences that a politician would feel. And it’s important that, you know, there is that understanding on both sides so both sides can work more effectively together. So broadly speaking, that’s what we’re trying do. Not a not a small thing. And certainly, we’re not the only people, you know, working on this issue, but that’s that’s the core of what we do.

What have you learnt about how the government responds to scientific advice?

I would say positively. They do listen. I think there is a real view out there that government never listens, MPs don’t listen. And that’s not my experience at all. I find that the MPs that we engage with, the members of the upper house, they do listen and they want to listen. I think the important thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between, let’s say, a parliamentarian’s personal views on an issue and what their interests are and how they view it and how they engage with it and how they choose to act, or lets say have to act within the party political system. So an important realisation that I’ve gained as well. So sometimes I speak to a member of Parliament of some political persuasion, and I hear what they say and what they think and then I find on the radio or the TV or the newspaper later that they’ve voted or said something in a completely different way to how I think I understood what their views were. But that’s part of the reality of them being politicians. So there is I think what I’ve learnt is that you can inform people they may have some view, they may act differently.

It’s just that the more you can influence people and give them access to information, at least it gives them the opportunity to, within the political process, start to move their ideas or move their party’s ideas or move political opinion.

I think it’s important I’ve learnt that things aren’t quick and not necessarily simple, and I don’t think as many people asking for much understanding often for our MPs, but I think it’s important that we do understand how they work and how they have to work so we can engage with them properly and and vice versa. So I think that’s a really important point because it’s the parliamentary and scientific committee, although, you know, as I said, we do look more broadly than just pure science. I think the other thing that I’ve learnt is just to have that understanding that the politicians need to see things in a context of wider society. So we might be working on we might have a meeting on a particular issue. But the way the politicians say it, it’s about wider society, it’s about their voters. It’s that, you know, cultural context. So science needs to understand those societal, cultural, political contexts and vice versa otherwise, they’re not going to able to communicate what they have to say in a way that is understood or has value to the people within parliament. So I think hopefully I’ve learnt that’s important, and hopefully I’ve learnt at least a little bit how to maybe help some other people realise that and maybe just tailor how they engage with the process a little bit.

What was most surprising to you about the work the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee do?

I think, to be honest, it almost comes back to a point that I made previously. I think I was surprised by the differences that elected members have between what I perceive to be personal views and the political realities that they exist within. And maybe this is, you know, I had a sort of naïve view of, you know, I’m a politician. I go into politics because I have some certain beliefs and therefore I will vote and act in accordance with those. But of course, that’s not necessarily the case because you have your, you know, you’re a member of a political party and there is something called, you know, whips within your party and you have to toe the line sometimes. I think that was a bit of a surprise. Maybe you just naively on my part, but it was interesting to see close up. I think another thing was just how open people are just to, and when I say people here, I mean both people on the science side and on the political side, just to engage in really open, interested debate in a safe environment, which is kind of what we strive to achieve. So when you’re away from the cameras and away from recording devices that you know, you’re standing around with a cup of tea or maybe a glass of wine, if we’re lucky, that you really get just genuinely interesting, engaged conversation, that’s it’s really quite free. And I suppose before starting this role, I maybe brought a slightly more sort of cynical opinion to the table. And I think doing this work has just made me realise that the genuine interest in humanity of the people involved, which I think was and remains a wonderful thing.

Is there an achievement or contribution that you’re most proud of?

So I suppose I’ll answer this from a sort of combined personal and parliamentary scientific committee perspective, or at least during the time I’ve been here. So there’s a few things I can think of. There have been a number of scandals involving, let’s say, undue influence by external parties on these.  And a few years ago or maybe eight years ago, there was the famous cash for questions scandal and arising out of that, oh maybe it was over 10 years ago. Arising out of that was an enquiry by Parliament into how these all party parliamentary groups, how they operate, how they work, how the finances work, who influences them, et cetera. And during that process, the Parliament Scientific Committee, we gave both written and verbal evidence to the enquiry, and we were highlighted as the example of best practise for the All-Party Parliamentary groups. So there was a clear distinction between where we got our resources from, how we operated and what we did, and it’s not possible in the way that we work to have that undue influence. So I think we were really proud of being singled out for that good ethical behaviour, and that’s been a really important part of what we do because then people certainly in parliament will continue to trust us and hopefully people want become members of us because then they know that we are a trusted conduit of information. So I think we were quite proud of a part of that.

Another one small, let’s say, certainly within the committee that we’re trying to go out from is we’ve really improved our equality, diversity and inclusion makeup. So when I first arrived there, candidly, I think it was all white men of a certain age of which I was by far the youngest and I was in my forties.

Now we have a much wider gender, ethnicity makeup, both on our council and in terms of the members of Parliament that we have. And that has really influenced what we do and how we do it for the better.

And again, I think it helps give us that start that credibility of representation that is so important for for us as an organisation, so I think that’s been been great.

Also, I think that on the whole, we tend to be ahead of the game. So a lot of the issues that we’ve picked up over the years, we seem to do before it becomes a big issue within, let’s say, wider society or within the political discourse or within the media, because the values that we have is in our members. So we have our university members, our business members, these are people who are experts in what they do and what they know, and we engage with them to try and find what are the issues that are going to be upcoming that are going to be important from a scientific perspective, within a political context. I think we have been really successful in almost, you know, early to the table to raise some of these issues. Now kind of part of the problem on the opposite side of that is that part of our challenge is to get as many members of parliament in particular to our meetings. Now we get, sometimes we get more, sometimes we get less. The things that tend to bring more people, more MPs to the table is when it’s something that’s very high profile. So the problem is we tend to be ahead of the game, but if we’re ahead of the game, it’s not so high profile at the time. So it’s always a bit of a balance between between those two. But I’m quite proud of that and that’s because we engage with all our members very, very closely.

What attracted you to join the parliamentary and scientific?

Well, how I started with the Parliamentary scientific committee. In my previous job, I worked for a lady she was an ex-PVC of the university, and she had attended these meetings for some time. And she she retired and suggested that I attend. And to be honest, you know, I was a bit younger than I am now. And that sounded extremely interesting to go down to the Palace of Westminster, go to some meetings there, hear about all sorts of science. I thought, wow, you know, this is it’s just really exciting, to be honest. You know, it was not something that we really thought of before. And I think when I got there, it was really interesting just to be amongst a lot of different scientists, engineers, people from different environments. A lot of elected members and seeing what people had to say. And I’ve always been driven in my professional life by trying to help universities in particular achieve impact out of the work we do. That’s why I have the role at the University of Portsmouth that I do, and I could see this as a way of maybe another way of trying to to to help that. So that was really exciting. I thought, Well, this is a good way potentially of making a difference. So I’d say that was the key attractor for me in the first instance.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced?

That’s an easy one. The biggest challenge has been going back to 1939, all the way to 2021. It’s that engagement and it’s that engagement with Members of Parliament. As always, that’s always a challenge. So back in 1939, there’s one one group like us now, so there are maybe about 800 or something. So if you want to go to an all party parliamentary group on a very specific issue, you can go to one APPG or another. And we look at all subjects, so things have become more tailored. We’ve stayed broad, so that has both benefits and challenges. But the main thing is that, as I said, engagement with members of Parliament particularly, House of Lords also matters an awful lot. MPs but they’re so busy. No matter what you think about your MPs and how good they are about the whole what you think they believe or don’t believe, they all work really, really hard. They have enormous amount of burden on their time, their resources. And, we are one group amongst many holding the flag, saying, come over to see us, it will be worth your time. You will get value from it.

This is our constant battle is to maintain that relevance and use, particularly for MPs and getting them to come and engage with our process. We are quite successful in that, but that’s the most important thing because if we’re not able to engage with those members of Parliament, then the value of our members is reduced to value for the members of Parliament, they’re not getting access to that information. So that’s the that’s the key thing.

These days, we have the internet, we have lots of other different ways that people can get their information. So again, for us, it’s about that quality of information.

You can read something on Twitter or you can read something on Google or read something in the newspapers, et cetera. And our challenge is to say that that’s fine, but what you really need to do is come and actually meet the experts.

Meet the experienced people who are living and working this, hear what they have to say have those discussions, and that is a lot higher value to you as a member of Parliament to then go away and see how that influences what you think and do and what might go into it as a policy. So it’s just maintaining that understanding of the relevance of that quality of discourse and engagement. That’s definitely the most challenging thing because it’s the core remit that we have.

What do you think other people should know about this organisation?

I think it’s important to know is that it is multi-party. It is across all the parties. In a sense, this is how the APPGs are all set up anyway. But we have members of parliament from all political parties. We have members of all political parties from the House of Lords, and these people work together very effectively. Yes, I said when they go into the chamber, one of the chambers, I think, is different, but together  those political divides really fall away quite a lot. And I’ve seen many, many, many times people who you would think probably don’t work that well together because of what their public views are engaging in real quality discourse and understanding and thinking and developing in that environment that we provide and that I think is important to understand because that’s how people’s thoughts develop. And it should give people some more confidence that you can engage with your members of Parliament and the process, and that is worth that it is worth doing.

I think in terms of organisation, it’s also we are increasingly, because we have we have traditionally been a science and engineering based organisation, we do obviously work in the policy situation and I’ve said before that includes, you know, where that’s where society and people are key. Increasingly, we are pushing exploring I think that side of things, we’re trying to work more with some more of the arts, social sciences, humanities, cultural organisations because the overlap between science and engineering and these side of things is increasing and increasingly important. So I think again, I think it’s important that people understand that that’s how we think and how we work as a society, because I think that’s important for its relevance and that’s important in terms of the people we want to bring in to create that environment that’s rich and meaningful and has an impact on parliamentarians sense.

We send out a roundup of opportunities for researchers to engage in parliament every week through our blog. Would you encourage staff to take a look and get involved?

I think most hopefully come out during this discussion here is that people in Westminster and Whitehall really do listen, and the actions that are ultimately taken are part of a complicated process of listening and hearing and influence. And it’s important to be part of that. So, you know, lobbying done openly and appropriately is not a dirty word. You know, lobbying, you can also use the word engagement is a vital part of that democratic process that we have. And if you’re not making your views known, then I can guarantee somebody else is and that might be done, maybe in a slightly less open and candid way, because that’s just, you know, that’s how things are.

So I would say, get engaged if you want to be, I think you have to want to be because it takes some time and effort and we’re all really busy. But you can have an influence. The parliamentary scientific committee is one way. There are many other ways and the the stuff that gets sent out from RIS on this topic on a regular basis covers different ways of doing that. Things like through the POST Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, the Science and Innovation Networks. There are various things and ways that you can do that. So yes, I thoroughly encourage it. It is worthwhile. And I think within the University, it’s important that we undertake our research pushing back the frontiers of knowledge that’s absolutely core what we do, and it has its own value, you know, completely in its own right. But it was also that aspect of taking those discoveries that knowledge, that understanding and letting it have the impact that it can do in wider society. And I think this is a way to do that. So the more more hands to the pump, I think, are important. And as I said, if you aren’t making your voices known, somebody else is.

Thank you very much to Dr Guy Hembury for his insights into the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. We hope you enjoyed it. And we’ll speak to you all again soon.