STFC funds a policy internship scheme that gives PhD students the opportunity to work in Parliament for three months. Fellows are either placed in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the House of Commons or House of Lords Libraries, or work with Select Committees.
POST provides independent, balanced and non-party political briefings for Parliament. These cover the biological, physical and social sciences, engineering and technology. These briefings take the form of a four-page ‘POSTnote’. Members of the Houses of Commons and Lords receive these briefings and they are available online for anyone to read. POST produces around 30 POSTnotes per year on a huge range of topics.
Find out more about what goes on in the House of Commons Library in this blog post from Hannah Sutcliffe, another fellow who undertook her fellowship at the same time as me.
When I heard about the fellowship, I was really interested to find out more about how Parliament and policymakers use scientific evidence. When the applications opened I was about to start my 3rd year of my PhD. I was being bombarded with the “what are you going to do when you finish your PhD?” questions. I thought gaining work experience outside my PhD would be a fantastic chance open my eyes up to other opportunities and improve my CV. And, as I am sure most other PhD students can relate, I was excited to work on a different topic for a bit!
As I do a PhD in Space Plasma Physics, I was placed in the Physical Sciences and ICT section. POSTnote topics are decided by the Board every quarter, and depending on which section you are placed in you may have a choice of topics. The topic I got to work on was ‘Online information and fake news’... which probably couldn’t be any further away from my PhD subject! When I found out my topic, I couldn’t wait to learn about and work on something that was completely new to me, and very topical.
Having nearly finished my fellowship, I can tell you that A LOT of work goes into producing the 4-page POSTnote! Fellows spend the first few weeks doing a lot of reading, identifying experts in the field from across academia, industry, government and the third sector, arranging and conducting interviews with them, and exploring the Houses of Parliament. The next stage is to write the POSTnote...
Despite not knowing anything about ‘filter bubbles’, ‘echo-chambers’ or ‘fake news’ before I started the fellowship, I now know much more than four pages worth! I found that the skills I have developed during my PhD had set me up well to research and write the briefing note. One of the biggest challenges was to condense all the information I had learnt down to the page limit. My POSTnote currently has around 150 references! And that doesn’t even get close to the total number of all the news and journal articles I read.
POSTnotes undergo an extensive review process before being published. Once a first draft is written, it is read by your advisor. It then goes back and forth a few times for further polishing before it is sent to other members of POST and colleagues in the House of Commons and House of Lords committees and libraries for an internal review. It then undergoes a couple more re-drafts before it is peer reviewed by experts in the field and POST Board members. At this stage, I sent my note to around 30 people for feedback!
The final hurdle before the note is published is to go through it with the Director of POST. My sign-off will be next month, so the POSTnote will be published soon!
One of the really cool things about doing a fellowship in Parliament is that fellows get a parliamentary pass, which means we can explore the Houses of Parliament. The Houses of Parliament are amazing. Please take a look at my blog to see some of the pictures I took during my fellowship and to find out more about the fellowship and Parliament.
During my fellowship, I also contributed to the House of Commons Library book, ‘Key Issues for the New Parliament 2017’. The book is prepared by researchers at the House of Commons Library for Members of the new Parliament. They summarise a range of topics that they think the new MPs will be interested in. I got to contribute to the Media and Technology section on the topic “Internet regulation: safety or censorship?”. I also wrote on “How content is driven to users” as I had learnt a lot about this for my POSTnote. I had to explain how algorithms used by social media platforms and internet search engines personalise the content each user sees, in 100 words!
I had a fantastic time working at POST and would highly recommend it to any PhD students who are interested in learning about how science and technology research is used in Parliament.