Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, (POST) is the Parliament of the United Kingdom's in-house source of independent, balanced and accessible analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology.[1] POST (rather distinctively) serves BOTH Houses of Parliament (the House of Commons and equally the House of Lords) as a joint establishment, through output that is apolitical and of widely acclaimed value to Parliamentarians of all parties. Thorough quality-control, which POST has pioneered, ensures that MPs and Peers can have confidence in the information should they wish to cite it in debate. These principles are reflected in the structure of POST’s Board with members from the Commons and Lords together with distinguished scientists and engineers from the wider world.

History[edit]

Year Event
1980s Office first suggested
1989 POST launched (with charitable funding). Among other support, the UK Centre for Economic and Environmental Development raised funds to provide POST with its first in-house environmental specialist adviser.
1992 POST was adopted as Parliamentary body subjected to five year reviews. There was an agreement by both Houses of Parliament.

The UK Parliament makes POST a permanent institution, in 2001, after Dr Ian Gibson MP, POST's Chairman, and Professor David Cope, Director, presented evidence to the then House of Commons Administration Committee to support the decision, endorsed later by the House of Lords.

Since 1939, a group of MPs and peers interested in science and technology, through the first parliamentary "All Party Group", the UK Parliamentary and Scientific Committee[2] (P&S), had encouraged UK Parliamentarians to explore the implications of scientific developments for society and public policy. As the UK economy became more dependent on technological progress, and the negative effects of technology (especially on the environment) became more apparent, it was felt that UK Parliament needed its own resources on such issues. Parliamentarians not only required access to knowledge and insights into the implications of technology for their constituents and society, but also needed to exercise their scrutiny functions over legislation and administration. This thinking was also influenced by the fact that specialised parliamentary science and technology organisations already existed overseas.

P&S members (Sir Ian Lloyd MP, Sir Trevor Skeet MP, Sir Gerry Vaughan MP, Lords Kennet, Gregson and Flowers among others) visited already established organisations in the US, Germany and France, and this reinforced their view that modern Parliaments needed their own ‘intelligence’ on science and technology-related issues. Initially they asked the then Thatcher government to fund such services at Westminster but were asked first to demonstrate a real need. This led to the P&S creating a charitable foundation to raise funds from P&S members.

POST began with a very modest staff of one, Hazel Starmer, who researched and wrote the first few Briefing Papers. The reaction was sufficiently positive to be able to recruit a Director, Dr Michael Norton,and in 1989 POST was formally established. It had attracted more resources by 1992 and then recruited 3 specialist science advisers, beginning its fellowship programme with the UK research councils. In 1992 the House of Commons Information Committee, later supported by the House of Lords, recommended that Parliament should fund POST for 3 years, and a subsequent review in 1995 extended this for a further 5 years. This was the result of POST demonstrating real interest and demand from MPs and peers. From 1997 the chair of the POST board was appointed by government Whips. Previous chairs have been Dr Ian Gibson MP 1997-2001, Dr Phyllis Starkey MP 2001-2005, and Dr Ashok Kumar MP 2005-2010. In 1998 Professor David Cope took over as Director of POST.

Prof Cope guided the Office through the period towards its establishment as a permanent office of the UK Parliament - and dramatically expanded its staffing - and wider links. In 2001 both Houses decided that POST should be established as a permanent bicameral institution.

In 2009 POST celebrated its 20th anniversary with, among other events, a special conference, arranged by the Director, Prof Cope, on "Images of the Future". The keynote participants were the Hon. Bart Gordon, Chair of the US House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology and Dr Jim Dator of the University of Hawaii Futures Research Centre.

Because of the enthusiasm of Members of both Houses, POST had enjoyed a unique status within Parliament. It was from its inception attached administratively to the House of Commons COMMISSION (though always with its link to the House of Lords.) It had specifically been distinguished from the Libraries of both Houses, which conduct derivative analysis for both Houses. POST - on the other hand - was expected to provide proactive analysis and advice, advice also freed from the immediate pressure of political or administrative expectations.

Although externally - and widely internally - lauded, this unique position translated into a vulnerability for POST in 2007-8, when, in the face of funding cutbacks - and a longstanding hostility to science and technology from the traditional recruitment to the parliamentary administrative service, in both Houses - POST was subjected to an internal review.

This led to POST, against the explicit recommendation of the then Commons Information Committee (and by procedure, of the House of Commons itself, which endorsed that recommendation) - namely, that POST NOT be linked to the Library function either House - to the administrative function of POST being taken over by the Library of the House of Commons.

POST has subsequently suffered somewhat from that loss of distinctiveness, even more so since its then Director, Professor Cope, moved to Cambridge University in 2012, to be replaced by a more junior Director, Dr Chris Tyler, who had already worked for a Commons select committee. His appointment broke an unwritten rule that POST senior staff should come, either from those having no prior involvement with the UK _Parliament - or from existing staff of the office.

Notwithstanding that, Dr Tyler has secured some complementary elements to POST's role, especially, building on earlier links, an agreement with one of the UK's Research Councils - the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to establish a specific social science function at POST.

As of August 2016, the Acting Directorship of POST is with Dr Chandy Nath, (nathc@parliaent.uk)

Activities[edit]

Science and Technology in Parliament[edit]

Most parliamentarians do not have a scientific or technological background but science and technology issues are increasingly integral to public policy. Parliamentarians are bombarded daily with lobbying, public enquiries and media stories about science and technology. These cover diverse areas such as medical advances, environmental issues and global communications. POST helps parliamentarians examine such issues effectively by providing information resources, in depth analysis and impartial advice. POST works closely with a wide range of organisations involved in science and technology, including select committees, all-party parliamentary groups, government departments, scientific societies, policy think tanks, business, academia and research funders.

POST's aim[edit]

POST's aim is to inform parliamentary debate through:

  • Publishing POSTnotes (short briefing notes) and longer reports. POSTnotes can be downloaded from the publications section of the POST website.[3] Both focus on current science and technology issues and aim to anticipate policy implications for parliamentarians.
  • Supporting select committees, with informal advice, oral briefings, data analyses, background papers or follow-up research. Committees may approach POST for such advice at any stage in an inquiry.
  • Informing both Houses on public dialogue activities in science and technology.
  • Organising discussions to stimulate debate on a wide range of topical issues, from small working groups to large lectures.[4]
  • Horizon-scanning to anticipate issues of science and technology that are likely to impact on policy

How POST works[edit]

A parliamentary board guides POST's choice of subjects. A team of advisers conduct analyses, drawing on a wide range of external expertise. All reports and POSTnotes are externally peer reviewed, and scrutinised by the board before publication.

POST's work falls into four topical areas:

  • Biological Sciences and Health
  • Physical Sciences and ICT
  • Environment and Energy
  • Social Sciences

International activities[edit]

POST is a member of the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment network, which brings together parliamentary organisations throughout Europe sharing information and working on joint projects.[5] POST also liaises with science and technology organisations across the world.

Between November 2005 to 2009, POST, collaborating with four of its sister organisations - at the Danish, Dutch, Flemish and German Parliaments - provided technology assessment services to the Science and Technology Options Assessment unit of the European Parliament, in Brussels and Strasbourg.

POST Africa Programme[edit]

From 2001 POST received a growing number of requests for advice from parliamentarians in developing countries. It became clear that a real need existed to strengthen capacity in developing country parliaments. In 2005, POST held discussions on this issue with the Gatsby Foundation,[6] which led to a special initiative to assist African Parliaments, and other organisations in their countries, in building parliamentary capacity to handle policy issues related to science and technology. At a time when there is growing awareness of the importance of science and technology in decision making, as demonstrated by, for example, the focus on science, technology and innovation at the African Union summit meeting in January 2007, this programme continues to contribute towards the overall objective of ensuring that parliaments have the capacity to scrutinise decision making processes and act as the national fora for discussion and debate on the broad implications of issues with a basis in science and technology. By sharing information and best practice with overseas parliaments and assemblies, the programme supports one of the primary objectives of the House: to promote public knowledge and understanding of the work and role of Parliament through the provision of information and access.

The POST Board[edit]

(Appointed 2010)

The POST Board oversees POST's objectives, outputs and future work programme. It meets quarterly. The Board comprises:

  • 14 parliamentarians drawn from the House of Commons (10) and the House of Lords (4), roughly reflecting the balance of parties in Parliament.
  • Leading non-parliamentarians from the science and technology community.
  • Representatives of the House of Lords and the Department of Information Services of the House of Commons.

Officers[edit]

House of Lords[edit]


Ex Officio Board Members[edit]

  • The House of Commons Librarian, for the Department of Information Services
  • Duncan Sagar, Clerk of Select Committees, House of Lords
  • Sarah Hartwell-Nagub, Head of Science and Environment Section, House of Commons Library

POST staff[edit]

Permanent staff[edit]

POST has six permanent science advisers, covering the fields of biology and health; physical sciences and ICT; environment and energy; and social sciences. Science advisers generally have a postgraduate qualification and science policy experience.

Fellows[edit]

POST runs formal fellowship schemes with scientific societies and research councils, whereby PhD students can spend three months working at POST through an extension of their maintenance grants. These include:

The Following two organisations collaborate to offer an annual scholarship in memory of the late Chemical Engineer and Parliamentarian Ashok Kumar MP. This scholarship enables an Engineering or Science PhD student to spend three months working at POST and get a better understanding of how parliament works.

For more information on fellowship applications see the 'POST Fellowships' section of the POST website.[8]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology". 
  2. ^ "Parliamentary and Scientific Committee". 
  3. ^ POST Publications
  4. ^ "POST Events". 
  5. ^ "European Parliamentary Technology Assessment". 
  6. ^ "The Gatsby Charitable Foundation". 
  7. ^ "The Institute of Food Science and Technology". 
  8. ^ POST Fellowships