Science for opinion formers, policy makers and decision takers

14 Nov 2011

As part of its strategy for external engagement, SCI is considering establishing itself as a resource available to senior influencers and policy makers in public service on the current status of scientific issues relating to government policy.

The BioResources Group was asked to consider this initiative following discussions with senior government contacts. The intention was for SCI to provide a series of seminars on key areas of science that underpin current topical issues of concern to government, industry and the public at large.

These seminars would take the form of one-day workshops to deliver, through presentation and discussion, a balanced science-based view on particular selected issues.

The core objective would be to provide attendees who hold positions of influence with an increased awareness and understanding of the state of current knowledge of key scientific issues in areas of their work.

The presented material would be set at a level appropriate to the attendees, including non-scientists. Informality and interaction with speakers would be key attributes for success of the seminars. This approach represents a new venture for SCI and so it was decided to organise a pilot meeting which was held on 6 October, 2011 with opportunities provided for feedback from participants.

The Pilot Seminar - Agri-food
The subject chosen for the pilot seminar was the agri-food area with a focus upon crop science and agricultural productivity. The delegates included 16 invited senior administrators, policy advisors and other officials involved with agribusiness and food areas in organisations including DEFRA, NFU, AHDB, BIS and the research councils.

We were fortunate to be able to provide an outstanding list of eminent speakers. The meeting began with an introduction to the global agri-food landscape provided by SCI's BioResources Group. This was followed by a cutting-edge presentation by Professor Sir David Baulcombe FRS - Head of Plant Science, University of Cambridge on new plant varieties - modern plant breeding and genomics. In addition to providing a fascinating future perspective of new plant varieties, the presentation engaged the attendees in a very lively discussion that inevitably led to a debate on genetic modification.

The next topic was led by Professor Sir Colin Berry FRS, Professor Emeritus, Queen Mary, London, ex-chair of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides on An understanding of risk vs hazard - the dangers of precaution. Sir Colin is famed for his ability to discuss risk in the context of everyday activities. The clarity of his pragmatic approach has gained the respect of regulatory authorities and numerous public groups. On this occasion, the delegates were provided with a masterclass on this subject, and again a fruitful debate engaged the attendees.

The final session was led by Dr David Lawrence, Syngenta Board Member and Member of the Food Security Foresight Panel on Agricultural productivity. Dr Lawrence was able to provide a comprehensive review of global prospects for food security together with a discussion of the sustainability issues that the sector needs to embrace.

He illustrated that the world has the inherent capacity to feed its burgeoning population for many decades to come, provided that improvements in productivity, largely based upon advances in technology, are delivered.

Future Plans
The feedback from delegates was generally very positive and a number of useful suggestions for improvement have been made. Unsurprisingly, the nonscientist delegates were the most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, those with recent scientific backgrounds agreed that the superlative quality of the presentations made for a very worthwhile day.

Suggestions to consider include reducing the programme to a half day, operating in different regions of the UK and tailoring the technical content to differing audiences. In terms of challenges, the organisers found it difficult to identify and attract appropriate delegates from government departments where we do not have personal contacts.

This provides SCI with a future objective to increase our profile in departments that are aligned with to our strategic objectives. Another opportunity relating to agri-food is to extend the concept to other target groups such as food retailers. It is hoped that we can repeat the seminar in 2012 whilst incorporating the improvements suggested by delegates. We shall also discuss with other SCI groups whether they wish to consider extending the model into other scientific arenas. Finally, we intend to investigate whether other bodies would wish to partner us in extending the reach in terms both of audience and subject matter.

The Biosciences KTN has already indicated its willingness to provide support and several other organisations and learned societies pursue strategies that have much in common with SCI's goals.

Dr David Evans, BioResources Group

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