SET for Britain, an attendees story

Now, before I start, I need to explain something – I attended SET for Britain in early March and the original post was written shortly after. However, there was one point I wasn’t happy with, that needed further investigation. Which then took 3 months. So apologies for the time delay, but it’s very much worth it. Especially the part where I got a parliamentary committee annoyed at me. Enjoy 😈


A few months back, I had the honour of being asked to present my poster at SET for Britain, in London at the House of Commons. Now, I feel SET for Britain needs some explanation because I’d barely heard of it until late last year.

SET for Britain is a mini conference run by the Parliamentary and Scientific committee for early-career researchers. The conference takes the form of a poster presentation by the researchers, in the Houses of Parliament to members of the House of Commons (MP) and members of the House of Lords (peers). The core idea behind it is to “foster greater dialogue and engagement between the researchers and MPs”. It also aims to encourage making connections and discussion between the researchers.

There is a bullet point list of SET for Britain’s aims here, the summary is very much about promoting science in parliament to MPs and getting an insight into how parliament views science.

So with this in mind I arrived, poster & 3D printed models in hand, at my allotted set-up time and got set up. The room was not that big, for a LOT of posters – in my combined physics and chemistry section, there were more than 60.

At the end near the door, there was a check-in desk where they were ticking us off lists and logging visitors. Next to them were 4 single pole coat stands that were trying valiantly to cope with 60 people’s coats.

My poster was situated in the middle of the middle aisle of posters and so I had quite a good view and a few neighbours to chat with. My colleague who attended a later session, was a little less lucky and was at the end of a side row.

At the far end of the room there was a nice spread of food for presenters and visitors to eat. However, there were also judges going round so we couldn’t leave our posters. On the two occasions I nipped off to get a cake (and go to the toilet) I returned to be told that the judges were looking for me. So instead of enjoying House of Commons refreshments, I stood by my poster and awaited judges and MPs.

I should say that the quality of the posters I could see was excellent. Not one of the attendees had followed my “terrible poster” guide. I don’t think they are collected anywhere for me to share, but there wasn’t a bad poster among them. Which, considering the normal conference quality, is really quite impressive. If you want to know how to do a good poster then I’d suggest trying to go to SET for Britain.

Because I had to stay with my poster, I didn’t manage to read many of them. We were all standing by our posters waiting for MPs etc to come visit our work so there wasn’t much inter-researcher chatting or presenting, which is a shame because some of it looked fascinating.

So there I stood for two and a bit hours (excluding a 2min toilet break where I had to queue behind a 6″5′ policeman in body amor with a gun) in front of my poster. In that time I was visited by 4 Judges, 1 representative from a society, and zero Members of Parliament.

The people around me faired not much better – of the 6 or 7 other poster presenters I could talk to from my poster, one had a visit from one of her MP’s staff. The rest just looked about as bored as me. Occasionally, there was a sudden rush of photographers as someone in a suit would come and stand with an attendee for a photograph before shaking hands and leaving again.

Desolate confrence

Now this is where my original article ended. Because when I wrote this I thought to myself “hang on, I’m one person seeing only a small slice of the conference. It’s not fair to besmirch the conference just because I didn’t see any MPs near me”.  So with a warm feeling of doing proper due diligence, I e-mailed the organisers of SET for Britain and began a very, very slow chain of events which lead to this much elongated blog post.

In late March, I wrote to the organisers of SET for Britain with a nice e-mail asking (the e-mail was titled “FOI inquiry”) for more objective information on the number of attendees.

To Whom it may concern.

I would like any attendance data collected for the SET for Britain event held on the 7th of March 2016. Specifically I would like to know the MPs that attended and the number visitors from other organisations. If available I would like this information broken down in to the individual sessions held during the event

Many thanks,

Matthew Partridge

And following this I had a swift reply from the Event Manager at SET for Britain. The Event Manager did have a name but I have redacted it.

Dear Mr Partridge,

Thank you for your enquiry regarding SET for Britain 2016.

Recorded numbers attending SET this year are as follows:

Physical Sciences Session – total 50
Parliamentarians – 21
Other organisations – 29

Engineering & Mathematical Sciences Session – total 105
Parliamentarians – 42
Other organisations – 63

Biological and Biomedical Sciences Session – total 63
Parliamentarians – 24
Other organisations – 39

I hope this information will be helpful; I am unable to provide a more detailed breakdown as I do not have the permission of attendees to do so.

Yours sincerely,

Event Manager
SET for Britain

Lots of loverly data – what more could I ask for! I was impressed that they were so quick with sharing the information I wanted.

Then I read it a bit more carefully and realised that it wasn’t actually the information I wanted. I had asked to know the number of MPs – this was telling me the number of ‘parliamentarians’.

Hi,

Thank-you very much for the information. I understand that you are limited on what you can release and I appreciate you sending me the data you have.

Can I please ask for a clarification. By ‘Parliamentarians’ do you mean standing MPs or is that anyone working within parliament?

Many thanks,

Matthew

Seems a fair question. According to the internet ‘parliamentarian’ can mean a huge range of things. It certainly isn’t reserved for the specific people I was asking about.

Dear Matthew,

Happy to clarify that Parliamentarians refers to representatives from the House of Commons and House of Lords, the vast majority of whom, in all sessions, were standing MPs.

Trust this brings this matter to a close.

Yours sincerely,

Event Manager
SET for Britain

Err, okay – that didn’t clarify anything. ‘Representatives’ is no clearer than “parliamentarians”. There seems to be no clear definition that ‘representatives’ are any more than ‘representatives’ of their employer the House of Commons. Technically, I’m a representative of Cranfield University but that doesn’t make me a professor.

I was also slightly baffled by what felt like them being evasive. But maybe it was me just not being clear. Perhaps they thought I was asking to know who they were.

Hi,

While I understand the need for permission of the attendees for the release of some information. Would it be possible please to have the numbers for MPs in attendance for each session as either a percentage or an absolute number compared to other parliamentarians.

Many thanks,

Matthew

This seems a reasonable question. They clearly know how many because they’ve already said “…the vast majority…” which implies they’ve checked. Besides, I saw them keeping a record at the door, they must have the information and I can’t see why they wouldn’t just release it. I mean, it is an event run in the Houses of Parliament to which the press and various societies are invited and filled with publicly funded researchers.

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your e-mail.

The Parliamentary & Scientific Committee/SET for Britain is not a public authority and is not obliged to respond to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

I have tried to assist by previously sending you some information, but I am unable to provide anything further .

Yours sincerely,

Event Manager
SET for Britain

Wow. So for those skipping the e-mails. Basically they said “we don’t wanna and you can’t make us!”

I mean this is, as I’ve mentioned, a public event where public research was being presented to MPs, but apparently I’m not allowed to know how many MPs were there?! More to the point, apparently the Parliamentary and Scientific committee is not beholden to Freedom and Information legislation? A organisation run by MPs for MPs to discuss and promote science is hiding what it’s doing?!

As you might have worked, out I was pretty shocked.

But this isn’t the end. I had one last recourse. I contacted the Information Commissioners office and pointed at this conversation and sputtered in disbelief. After a phone call and a couple of e-mails, they eventually came back to me with a final ruling last week.

Thank you for your email of 5 May 2016 regarding an information request made to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.

I can confirm that the above organisation is not a public authority and as such does not fall under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Which really is the end of the road for this little saga. The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee is not a public body (their funding comes from industry subscriptions) and so even through it’s a parliamentary body, it is not beholden to the Freedom of Information Act. And it seems that they are unwilling to give information on their events out of the goodness of their hearts.

The Parliamentary and Scientific committee “focuses on issues where science and politics meet, informing Members of both Houses of Parliament”. But apparently, not in a way that us mere mortals are allowed to have any insight into.

So I guess the question “How many MPs attended SET for Britain 2016?” is still unanswered. Personally, from the fact that my simple question has resulted in stonewalling, refusal to answer and invoking of a loophole in the Freedom of Information Act I’m guessing it’s probably “very few”.

Why do I care? I care because I spent probably about 2 days preparing my poster for SET for Britain. As did 270 other early-career researchers. For an event that is billed as “Presenting and discussing “ground-breaking” and frontier UK research and R&D to Members of both Houses of Parliament at Westminster”. But to which very few MPs even bother attending.

If the event isn’t actually working that’s one thing – some conferences work and some don’t. But SET for Britain seems to be actively hiding the fact that MPs might not be attending an event specifically thrown for them. The Parliamentary and Scientific committee don’t seem to understand that in science you fix problems, you don’t hide them and pretend they don’t exist.

Please don’t misunderstand – at it’s core, SET for Britain is a good project. I love the idea of SET for Britain, a part of me really wants to support it and help promote science to MPs, and for that matter have a chance to understand the politics of science better. All the things SET for Britain is trying to achieve I think are noble ideas. I just don’t think that SET for Britain in its current form is doing that, and given that SET for Britain don’t want to tell me about their event I assume they think so too.

Would I recommend SET for Britain to other researchers? In its current form, no. But maybe if it changed and they rethought the structure and its aims, then maybe as a project it could be worth attending again.

So from my day at SET for Britain 2016 I didn’t get to talk to the other presenters more than a few snatched conversations. I didn’t get time to look at the other posters. No one, aside from the judges, came to see me. I’ve not left with any new contacts or ideas. I left with a bit of paper that says I attended. Which is at least something I got out of it that the MPs didn’t.

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