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Bristol MP to visit University on pairing scheme

Dr Daniela Schmidt and Stephen Williams, MP discuss the intricacies of parliament

Dr Daniela Schmidt and Stephen Williams, MP discuss the intricacies of parliament

24 January 2008

Stephen Williams, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, will visit Dr Daniela Schmidt from the Department of Earth Sciences on Friday 25 January as part of the MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme.

Established by the Royal Society in 2001 as part of the Science in Society programme, the scheme aims to build bridges between some of the best research workers in the country and members of the UK parliament. To date, 200 scientists and MPs have taken part. The scheme comprises three activities: a briefing by the Royal Society, a week in Westminster, and reciprocal visits to the constituency office and the laboratory.

Mr Williams has a degree in history from Bristol University and has lived and worked in the city since graduating. Dr Schmidt is working on climate change and its effect on plankton in the ocean. Her main focus is a process termed the ‘other half of the climate problem’, the acidification of the world’s oceans.

Mr Williams will shadow Dr Schmidt on his day-long visit to the Department of Earth Sciences to get a flavour of her day-to-day work and an overview of the department’s climate change science. He will also meet students and find out about the significant issues in science education today.

Commenting on her week in Westminster at the end of November, Dr Schmidt said: ‘The timing was brilliant. A lot of Bills that are directly related to my work are currently being discussed in parliament – the Climate Change Bill, the Energy Bill and the Marine Bill.

I enjoyed meeting experts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and various Select Committees and was impressed by the range and amount of information they have to process and translate into comprehensible science and then law.

At the end of each day, I was extremely tired – never underestimate the length of the corridors between an MP’s Westminster office and parliament! I’m looking forward to the next part of the scheme, when I’ll be shadowing Stephen in his constituency on 29 February.’

You can read more about Dr Schmidt’s week in Westminster in the diary below. At the time of the visit, Stephen Williams was the Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Schools.

Extracts from Dr Daniela Schimdt's diary, 26-29 November 2007
I am on my way to London, excited about the prospect of a week behind the scenes in Westminster and amused by the fact that the first day’s witness evidence will be given by someone from my department. What do I aim to achieve? Getting to know people who translate scientific results into laws; trying to find out how I can communicate with them effectively; learning their lingo; trying to find out how I can be part of this process, and how I can make use of my knowledge and the information I gather every day to avoid the dangerous effects of climate change in the future.

Monday 26 November. First day in Westminster – what an impressive building. Stunned by the splendour of the rooms and their hidden treasures. Never-ending corridors, so many books, paintings, glittering gold. Despite being so new, it is still so deliberately built on the foundations of the past. It is odd to be in these rooms that are otherwise just known from TV and absolutely intriguing to see how the image of the House of Commons is influenced by the perspective of the camera. The two-party layout of the room is overemphasised. Is this chance or deliberate? A modern parliament, but before the work begins a prayer is said. How do they deal with the different denominations?

Lunch with MP, who is in rather a hurry to get to the next meeting. My MP is Stephen Williams, Bristol West, Lib Dem. We go to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in Portcullis House. The topic is how science can help to prevent natural disasters becoming economic and human catastrophes. Stephen is joining me since he wants to find out what I do and the first speaker is from Bristol. Would I have chosen the same experts if I had had to make this decision? Went briefly to the reception and then dinner. Nice to have a chat with Stephen and get to know him. Amazed about his openness.

Tuesday 27 November. Great overview of the people who collect the information, at the interface between science and parliament. House of Lords Science and Technology Committee; Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology; Parliamentary and Scientific Committee: who comes up with the names and the jargon? Highly informative, but also scary. How do they get their information? How difficult is it for these people to pick the right expert? If they are biased, surely the whole process is?

Afternoon spent with people from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Highly impressed by the Government’s Foresight programme, which uses science-based methods to provide visions of the future. Topics range from floods and coastal defence, via sustainable energy management to health, biotechnology and nanotechnology. How do they give the best scientific evidence and advise? How do you decide what is an immediate threat, and what is an emerging one? How do you make the long-term plans? At the moment, the Energy Bill, Climate Change Bill and Marine Bill are on their table; so many topics I care about and so much paperwork. If I can barely read it all, who will? Who are the MPs on the Select Committee and what is their background?

Wednesday 28 November. First meeting at 8 am with the title ‘Advancing opportunity: new models of schooling’, organised by the Smith Institute. Stephen is the Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Schools and hence a large amount of his work is linked to education. James, his assistant, has been catching up what happened at the last Children, Schools and Families Committee, since there are often several things running in parallel. How do MPs decide which meetings to go to, considering that there are hundreds of possibilities every day?

Back to Westminster, or rather to Stephen’s office, which is blocks away. What a cramped place for three people.

Time for Prime Minister’s Questions. Considering the donations scandal that has just been uncovered (concerning property developer, David Abrahams), this has a lot of potential. Packed visitors’ gallery. I’m so glad James could organise a ticket for me. The Chamber is no less busy; everyone is eager to watch the spectacle. Will the PM be able to get out of this with his head held high? What childish behaviour from the MPs – not just the ‘ayes’ and the ‘nos’, but the constant noise and chatter. If this were my lecture theatre, I would have kicked them out! I expected more from Cameron in the debate, and took a deep breath when Lib Dem acting leader Vincent Cable made his comment about Gordon Brown going “from Stalin to Mr Bean” in a matter of weeks. Meeting over and within seconds the Chamber is empty again. What an odd show for the cameras.

Private tour through Westminster. It’s great that Stephen is a historian and can give me more insight than you’d get on the normal tour. On to the roof of the Palace with a great view of Big Ben, down to the beautiful chapel. The afternoon is taken up with the lobby on parliament to mark the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people and Stephen will meet members of his constituency – different   people with different backgrounds, all trying to persuade him to help their cause. How do you pick the ones you fight for and avoid spread yourself to thinly? Very impressed by how Stephen deals with this. During one of the meetings, he has to rush away to vote. Getting from Portcullis House the Westminster in time must keep people fit. Definitely not the place for girly shoes. I go to a reception attended by David King, the government Chief Scientific Adviser, while Stephen goes to a Lib Dem party meeting. The day ends with a Red Balloon Reception to create awareness of the issue of bulling in schools. A long day.

Thursday 29 November. James is working though hundreds of letters and emails. I’ll never complaint again about the amount of mail I have to deal with. Which information to archive and which to recycle? Stephen has a parliamentary party meeting in the morning, since the Lib Dems are preparing for the election of a new leader. This is, of course, a private meeting. I drop in to the Stop Aids Campaign on Parliament Square to pledge my support for World AIDS Day. Dash home to Bristol.

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