Biobanks, bioethics and three months in Parliament
My time as the first Nuffield Council on Bioethics POST Fellow has come to an end – and what a whirlwind of fun it has been! The idea of a POST fellowship is to produce a four-page research briefing (a POSTnote) on a topic related to science and technology that is of policy interest to both Members of Parliament and Peers. The topic that I was allocated was biobanks, which I have to admit, due to my own ignorance, was something I knew nothing about! However, this proved beneficial throughout my time at POST as the idea is to write an independent, a-political and balanced piece, and the fear would be that if it were a topic which you were familiar with there would be too many ready formulated opinions which would need to be challenged.
The process for researching and writing a POSTnote is relatively straightforward. After undertaking a literature review on the topic to get my head around the background to the questions and the key issue, I then went out to meet with a range of stakeholders involved in biobanking in the UK (and abroad) which included researchers, ethicists, lawyers, funding councils, government departments, and participants in various studies involving biobanks. Finally, I drafted the POSTnote, which was further subject to internal and external reviews prior to publication to ensure that it reflected an accurate, independent consolidation of the topic.
Working in Parliament for three months has been such a great experience; not only have I learnt a considerable amount about how Parliament actually works, but I have also got to grips with how academic endeavor (and other stakeholders) can influence policy makers. Through activities such as the contributing to POSTnotes (as well as routes through Select Committees) experts in each field can put their knowledge and suggestions forward to MPs and Peers for consideration. This enables all faces of any issue to be presented to Parliamentarians in a comprehensive manner, and decisions to be weighed against each other.
This is nonetheless apparent when considering bio-ethical issues of science policy. I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss such issues relating to biobanks with such a range of people both within and outside of the Houses of Parliament, which informed my piece. As part of my fellowship, we also had the opportunity to sit in on debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords, which allowed me to see how other issues are handled. For example, I was fascinated by the Lords’ consideration of the assisted dying bill, the Science and Technology Select Committee’s evidence session for their enquiry on social media, and of course to attend Prime Minister’s Questions. Through these sessions, it is apparent that considerable time and discussion go into analysis of potential bills and ensuring that government action is scrutinized to ensure best practice where possible. Perhaps it is something which I had never considered before, but it definitely made me have greater faith in the system of decision making at top levels that such time was devoted to ensure that subject experts are able to offer their assistance to national policy makers. Notably, from my own social science background I was pleased to see that social and ethical issues were deemed just as important as pure ‘scientific’ fact.
I would recommend any other PhD student considering such a placement to undertake it. Not only does it offer much needed respite from the grueling third year of dissertation, but it has also opened my eyes to a whole range of future career possibilities in health and science policy that I didn’t even know existed! Moreover, it’s not a bad place to go to work everyday surrounded by lofty gothic architecture, tourists and centuries of history!
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