Press Office


A 'complement' to the Commons


Dr David Kavanagh swapped the lab benches for the front benches of the House of Commons during his “Week in Westminster” as part of a unique pairing scheme.

David, a Wellcome Trust intermediate clinical fellow and Consultant Nephrologist investigates the role of the complement system in atypical haemolytic uraemic syndrome (aHUS) - a severe kidney disease which leads to kidney failure. The complement system is part of the body’s immune system which kills invading bacteria. In aHUS the complement system is faulty and the body’s own kidney cells can be damaged by mechanisms designed to destroy bacteria.

In a personal account of his experiences, David makes a spirited case for increased scientific engagement with Government:

As an avid follower of the Today programme, I was extremely excited about the prospect of spending a week in Westminster as part of the Royal Society’s scheme to demystify the role of science in government. I was one of a group of twenty scientists from different backgrounds across the UK given this opportunity in October 2012.

My goals were to learn first-hand how the political process works and specifically, how I could contribute to and engage with this as a clinician and a scientist. With the chimes of Big Ben reverberating round the courtyard, we began with a tour of the Palace of Westminster. With history seeping from the walls and the opulence of the Sovereign’s room and The Lords’ Chamber surrounding us, this was truly a disarming exercise in Parliamentary shock and awe.

After an impromptu fire alarm with evacuation and talk of ‘threat neutralisation’ had increased our heart rates, it was a relief to sit down and learn about the mechanisms of government in a series of seminars by the Hansard Society; the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the Commons and Lords Science and Technology Select Committees.

Then, it was our turn to work – ‘playing’ Government Chief Scientific Adviser. We were called to COBR(A), and told that an earthquake and Tsunami had struck Japan. Troubling reports of explosions at a nuclear power station were being received. There were 300,000 UK nationals in the region. What should we do? We were revisiting the events in Fukushima in 2011.  I am not sure I would have done as well as Sir John Beddington in the circumstances but as a scientist, I was relieved and, I have to admit, slightly surprised that scientific evidence was the predominant basis for the response to the crisis.

Then, walking through the corridors of power I came across a rare Westminster beast - an MP with a science background!  It was my host for the week, Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Minister for Innovation, Science and Digital Infrastructure. A quick review of her schedule revealed a diary of commitments that rivalled my own as she sped off, with me in tow, to host a Breast Cancer Charity. 

The next day saw a crowded Commons Science and Technology committee look into the political ‘hot potato’ that was the merger the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre with the committee raising concerns about the process. Then Prime Minister’s Question time (or PMQs), an event of pure theatre! Questions hurled across the dispatch box with members baying for blood behind- Yes I was back in my PhD viva!

Then Chi and I were off again. A meeting with an arthritis charity; the opening of a new think tank; a meeting on digital infrastructure; a round table on science funding, all punctuated by the sound of division bell signalling an upcoming vote.  By now it was late, but the house was abuzz! There was talk of rebellion! The government defeated!

And then it was over. It had been exhilarating, exciting, but mostly enlightening. My preconceived ideas were gone. I found an organisation reaching out to harness the world leading science this country produces. If as scientists, we want to have a voice, then we must engage with government.

Being paired with a politician with the boundless energy and drive to improve the representation of science and engineering in government gave me an unparalleled insight into how science policy is formed. I thank Chi for such a memorable week.

I commend this Royal Society Pairing Scheme to the House.

MP Chi Onwurah is reciprocating with a visit to the IGM labs on Friday (16th November). She said: “It was a great pleasure to host Dr Kavanagh and discuss ways in which scientists and politicians can work together to ensure better informed public policy debate.

"Science is at the heart of many of the challenges we face – feeding a world of seven billion, keeping well in old age, decarbonisation of the economy – so it is absolutely essential that scientists engage with politicians and vice versa.”

(Photo shows David and MP Chi Onwurah in front of the House of Parliament)

published on: 16 November 2012