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Lessons from Parliament

11 October 2012

The Faculty of Engineering's Kristy Revell tells Kim Morgan about how her fellowship with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has taught her to communicate complex information to non-subject-specialists.

Westminster by night. Image: Jim Trodel

Image: Jim Trodel

Tell us about your background.

I studied Civil and Environmental Engineering at UCL then worked in transport planning for a couple of years before returning to UCL, where I’ve undertaken interdisciplinary research that spans environmental science and environmental psychology with a bit of behavioural economics included. My research looks specifically at the role of local authorities in encouraging pro-environmental behaviour change within London. I’m driven by how we can change our behaviour to live more sustainable lifestyles.

Could you describe the work you’ve been doing in the Houses of Parliament?

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which is an office of both houses, has an established fellowship programme. My role as a fellow was to research and write a publication, known as a POSTnote, co-authored by a scientific advisor who is employed full time by the Houses of Parliament.

For a POSTnote topic to be chosen, initially advisors research scientific topics that are timely and policy-relevant; these are then presented to the board of POST, who select the topics for the upcoming POSTnotes. The target audience of POSTnotes is both the House of Commons and House of Lords. These POSTnotes are all available online.

I was embedded at Westminster for three months, situated within the theme of Energy and Environment; the POSTnote I worked on is entitled Energy Use and Behaviour Change [read Kristy’s POSTnote here].

How did this fellowship come about?

It’s an EPSRC-funded post, but other research councils also fund these posts. There’s a round once a year with a deadline in October. When I applied, the selection process included writing a two-page POSTnote followed by an interview.

How does your post in Parliament tie in with your work at UCL?

Most fellows’ POSTnotes are not in their field of expertise, for example they may ask a plant biologist to work on the subject of diabetes. I was lucky that my note was very close to my field.

What do you need to think about when writing a POSTnote?

Parliamentarians will not, generally, be experts in science and technology, therefore we are writing for an educated yet lay audience. Also, parliamentarians are short on time so the note cannot be longer than four pages, with detailed information separated from the main text in boxes – this allows the reader to get more detailed information if they require.

The language I used was quite different to how I would usually write. Normally, I assume that the reader is someone working in my field of academia, but in this instance it’s not the case. Also, policy plays a larger role so I had to pull out what was policy-relevant.

It’s important to consider not just what you put in, but what you leave out. You have to ensure that there are plenty of references that allow the reader to get more information on the topics that interest them.

What advice would you give to a lecturer or presenter who has to communicate complex concepts to an audience that doesn’t know as much about the topic?

You may learn a lot doing something like a lunch hour lecture – it’s good practice. Don’t assume your audience are not educated, and don’t get too bogged down in detail. Getting someone else to look at what you’ve produced, someone who is not an expert, is very helpful – they can give you the perspective you need to make sure you’re getting everything across as you want to and conveying it clearly.

What are the implications of having worked in parliament?

Networking has been very useful, as has getting an understanding of how parliament, government and policy actually work: I now know how to make my work more policy-relevant. It was good fun and a very worthwhile experience; I’ve also gained an insight into potential future careers.

Kristy Revell

Kristy Revell is a postgraduate researcher in Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (CEGE).

Interview by Kim Morgan

Page last modified on 10 oct 12 15:13

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