Our interview with Dr Sarah Bunn
Dr Sarah Bunn is a Biological Sciences & Health Scientific Adviser at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). We caught up with her to find out more about her career in parliament…
1. Can you tell us about your career path, and how you got to your current position as a Scientific Advisor at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology?
While I was doing my PhD I knew that I didn’t want to carry on with lab research but was fairly sure that I was interested in opportunities that would allow me to stay in science, broadly speaking, but I also really enjoyed writing, so I looked around for jobs where those two things were the focus. While I was looking around, I did a post-doc, which was actually a really good experience. At the end of that contract, a job came up at the Department for Work and Pensions, working as a scientific adviser in the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser. This was a really interesting experience and I learnt a lot about how government and policy work, but as it was only a one-year contract I was soon on the hunt for my next job. Then I found out about the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) which I thought looked fascinating, so when they advertised for a scientific adviser to work on health, medicine and life sciences I applied, was successful, and I have been there ever since.
2. What lead to your interest in bridging the gap between research and policy, specifically in Biological Science & Health?
My main motivation and source of satisfaction is being able to provide a link between the scientific community and the parliamentary community. There is real value in being able to synthesise what can be sometimes incredibly complicated and technical scientific knowledge and to present that to parliamentarians, many of whom do not have a research background, but really need this information in order to be able to make better informed decisions. I also just really enjoy being able to work on such a diverse range of topics and to be able to work closely with scientists who are incredibly willing and generous in sharing their expertise and time with us to achieve our goal of supporting Parliament.
3. In 2018 the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology published a paper on the microbiome and human health – has this impacted any policies so far and/or changed the views of MP’s on the importance of the gut microbiota in human health?
It is very difficult to know exactly what the impact of our papers is, particularly amongst our parliamentary audiences. We can keep track of things like general download statistics, and direct citations, but quite often the more narrative and anecdotal feedback is more interesting and valuable. Prompted by your question, I did a search for the term “microbiome” in parliamentary records and it appeared in search results only after we published our paper in 2018, and then only on a handful of occasions. While we have no way of knowing if the use of the term microbiome became more frequently used in parliamentary business as a consequence of our briefing, it would be nice to think that it went some way to informing Parliament about this interesting topic and the terminology used in the research community. The term “microbiota” crops up in parliamentary records from 2016, as parliamentarians began asking questions about faecal microbiota transplants for treating C. difficile infections. Then if we start to look at the terms that are more widely used in common parlance by non-specialists, such as “gut flora”, “gut bacteria” or “probiotic”, then more records come up in searches over a much longer time period. I think this highlights how non-specialist audiences often feel more comfortable with using non-technical language that makes topics more accessible, so I’d say this is something important for researchers to bear in mind when they are engaging with policymakers.
4. Could you share with us one of your key career highlights since working at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology?
We host several fellowships funded by a range of science organisations, that offer PhD students and more established researchers an opportunity to come and work in POST and take on a briefing project over a three-month period. It is such a fulfilling experience to be able to work with such bright and enthusiastic researchers, many of whom are at the point at which they are considering the next steps in their own careers. I particularly enjoy helping them to develop their communication skills, and helping them to get a better understanding of parliament and how that fits in with the wider policymaking landscape. It is always very rewarding to see them go on and flourish in their careers, and we have an alumni network of POST Fellows that pop up in all sorts of interesting places!
5. Is there a specific area of Biological Science & Health that you think lacks evidence based research but is an important topic for MP’s to be aware of? What research would like to see develop within this area to improve this?
I would say that we are really fortunate to have a really amazing wealth of high-quality science in the fields that I have to keep an eye on. Having said that there are some really challenging questions that are incredibly difficult and for which there are no easy solutions. For example, looking at the obesity epidemic, the relationship between diet, health and physical activity and how this translates to policymaking is incredibly complex. The main thing that is helpful as far as people like me are concerned is having a community of researchers who are really skilled in being able to communicate their research to non-specialists in an accessible way, and who aren’t afraid to explain what the limits or uncertainties of the research are.
6. What can health care professionals and/or researchers do to engage parliament in evidence based research?
Parliament has a Knowledge Exchange Unit based within POST, which focuses on fostering better relationships between the research community and Parliament. For those who would like to find out more there are lots of really accessible resources online with practical tips, or you can sign up for one of regional training event which are listed on our website.
7. What does a typical working day look like for you?
A typical day might involve meetings with academics, and sometimes with delegations from other parliaments or governments who are interested in our work. I usually spend time scanning journals or upcoming conferences which are terrific sources for new ideas for our future work program. If I have a research report on the go, or a research fellow working with me, then a lot of time is spent on writing or in editorial meetings. There is also a lot of activity going on in Parliament, so I might also attend a Select Committee meeting or a POST event, which we host regularly – we invite in experts to talk to MPs and Peers about their research.
8. You are involved in many public engagement activities (e.g. giving talks to students and academics and supervising PhD fellowships) - what do you enjoy the most about the responsibilities these roles involve taking on?
I really enjoy getting out and about and meeting new people and finding out about all the amazing research that is going on across the UK. It really helps us to keep in touch in a meaningful way with the wider research community. It is also valuable to be able to engage in discussions with researchers at events as this helps us to understand what issues the community is talking about and this also helps us to develop our outreach activities and working practices. We also participate in international events and I have been very pleased to have been able to visit several European Parliaments over the last few years. A highlight was giving a presentation in the Czech Parliament - about POST and legislative science advice - to Senators and the Czech Academy of Sciences, who were interested in our model and thinking about how they might approach it in their country.
9. What do you enjoy the most about your job?
My favourite thing is the incredible diversity of topics that I work on, and there is always something new on the horizon to look forward to, although I might not know what that might be! I also have great colleagues who are super smart and funny, we are a small team and we all get on really well and that makes for a terrific working atmosphere. I also really appreciate the flexible working that Parliament offers its staff – I have a young family and I am able to work flexibly around that which is very important for me.
10. If you could give one tip to aspiring students, what would it be?
I would suggest exploring different opportunities that allow you to spend time in different organisation or professions – such as through our fellowship programmes. You’ll have the chance to step away from your research and immerse yourself in stimulating new environments and develop all sorts of skills that will be useful, whatever profession you enter. If you come to POST you will be working in a unique environment, on a relevant and timely topic that will have an influential readership, you’ll work very hard but have a lot of fun, meet terrific people and make some good friends!