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Thinking of leaving the lab bench for the front bench?

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has teamed up with the British Library to host an event for scientists and engineers to learn how to engage with politics.

The event, From the Lab Bench to the Front Bench, will take place at the British Library on 13 March. Confirmed speakers so far are the scientist and Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert and Mark Henderson, former science editor at The Times, now at the Wellcome Trust Imran Khan, the director of Case, says the event will be an introduction to the connections between science and politics, targeted at an audience that is less familiar with the world of politics.

“What we often find is that there is a core of scientists and engineers who are increasingly well engaged but we want to get beyond that and find people who are interested to learn more about how the process works but haven’t actually been involved before,” Khan told Research Fortnight.

It is increasingly important for researchers to engage with politics, as it is an effective way of making their voices heard, he says.

“We’ve seen in fields such as climate change and medicine that the most vocal sectors are better at getting what they want,” Khan says. “The trouble is that politicians are only incentivised to think in five-year time scales, so it’s incumbent on the scientific community to essentially make them think in longer time scales.”

Khan says the view that scientists are particularly reluctant to engage with politics is a stereotype of the past and that attitudes seem to be changing. However, he adds, there is more to be done. For example, he says, out of of 650 MPs, only Huppert has been a practising research scientist, while more than one hundred have practised as lawyers.

An existing scheme—the Royal Society’s ‘pairing scheme’, in which scientists are teamed up with either an MP or a civil servant for mutual workplace visits—will be discussed at the event.

Mita Chotalia, a biomedical researcher at the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Sciences Centre, was a participant in that scheme in 2011, paired with Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse.

“I wanted to see how these policies that directly affect me come about, who the people that make the decisions are and when they consult scientists—I had no idea about the process at all,” she says. “I learnt a lot, I have a much clearer idea of the channels that are available as a researcher to get my point across and who to contact.”

Chotalia adds that although scientists and politicians may appear to be worlds apart, the process of government is actually quite “scientific”, with lots of scrutiny of evidence involved.

“If researchers were aware of that system, it’d be something they would be very familiar with and would be able to identify with,” she says.