We are proud to work collectively with a growing community of microbiologists whose voluntary contributions are helping to put microbiology firmly on the map. This month we are joined by David Walker, who recently worked with us on an intern policy project.
David studied Biochemistry at UCL and received his Masters in Science Communication from Imperial College London. Whilst there, he had a chance to indulge his passions for philosophy, science writing and policy, and is now a science writer and educator based in London.
What inspired you to get involved with FEMS?
“FEMS offered the opportunity to work on a fascinating project, to really sink my teeth into an area that combined so many of my interests and let me take a lot of esoteric academic thought and try to use it to help create a real practical guide and commentary on how scientific institutes could act. It was obvious at the beginning that it would be fun and full of incredibly valuable learning moments for me. The inspiration is automatic when an opportunity like that arises, you just grab it with as many hands as you have available.”
Could you describe what you did for your intern project? And what interesting outcomes came from it?
“The work which I produced was a wide-ranging document; in parts policy proposal, benchmarking exercise, literature review, and practical criticism of the role of the scientific institution in governance. In advance of FEMS new goals, I got to explore what part other scientific institutes similar to FEMS play in providing evidence to policymakers, in shaping public discourse, in representing the interests of their members, and then synthesise this with the body of academic thought on effective policy influencing and my own communications background.
It was essentially my task to codify, formalise and expand the toolkit available to a scientific policy team. What broader outcomes it will have remains to be seen, but the thing I found fascinating – and hope will be incrementally more popularised by my having written about it – is the myth of evidence-based policy-making. There is a popular and dangerous perception that it is the role of the scientist (and those who represent them) only to provide those who make decisions with impartial evidence. That if only this were done thoroughly and effectively by the honest information brokers that the data would speak for itself, and the uninformed, spurious or downright dangerous excesses of politics would be erased.
This not the case. Such ideas ignore entirely the value based judgements on which politics is built, they ignore the differing demands, timescales and evidence requirements of policymaking and science. To think that evidence based policy-making is the solution to all our governmental gripes is to assume that science holds all the answers, and that both local and global problems will wait patiently for us to arrive at them. In reality, this attitude is a thinly veiled excuse to roll our eyes and disengage from the difficulties and stress of trying to make a meaningful change.
What I hope comes of my project is a slightly more widespread appreciation that science, scientists, and scientific institutions have a duty to go beyond consultation responses; to actively frame the evidence and campaign on important issues. To help stimulate a culture change where researchers doing policy work is seen as a laudable, valued and standard part of doing science. To help scientists and politicians to communicate better with each other, bidirectionally, so that scientists might be less disillusioned by their shattered expectations of how policymaking works, and the important knowledge that they’ve created is communicated effectively to those who have the power to do something with it. Science is getting more and more multidisciplinary and intersectional, and now it needs to better understand its intersection with politics.
Giving scientists a basic understanding in practical political theory, providing them with an influencer’s toolkit, and creating spaces in which they can communicate with their representatives, could empower the environmental scientists, medical researchers, and sociologists – whose knowledge is so desperately needed and (for the most part) craved – see meaningful positive change in the way our nations and worlds are run.”
What are your future aspirations?
“I never liked to have Big Dreams to work towards, perhaps because I have the privilege to have a variety of things that make me feel fulfilled at any given time. Or because I feel fairly certain that any big specific goal I have now would be quickly rendered trivial by an even bigger and better cause that I couldn’t possibly see coming. This is not to say that I don’t believe in things or have anything that I want out of life, just that I don’t think that I can know how I can create the most change, or what it should be, until after I start engaging with something. I will be quite contented to be a small part of something much bigger than myself, and through focusing on how I can be as effective as possible in life I expect I will do whatever is needed at any given time and discover it to be just as satisfying as accomplishing any Big Dream would ever be. My future aspiration, and current plan, is to spend my life working hard, happily and effectively at things I really believe in. The rest is just details.”