POST has a permanent staff of six scientific and technical specialists, a Director and two PA’s. These are complemented by the POST fellows (see below) of whom there are usually 5–6 present at any time. It is difficult to give an authoritative figure for the total annual budget of POST as many services such as accommodation, IT, training, etc. are provided centrally by the UK Parliament. However, annual direct operational costs are about 500,000 GBP.
All POST research is conducted in-house by either its permanent staff or by one of its doctoral/post-doctoral fellows. These fellowships are a distinctive feature of POST. They are funded by many UK charitable scientific foundations, by learned societies, by most of the UK’s Research Councils and by individual universities. Through them, fellows spend usually three months at POST, working on one of its well-known »POSTnotes« or assisting a parliamentary committee. Well over 100 such fellows have now been at POST.
POST’s work lies heavily in the area of »expert analysis« conducted by the staff and fellows but augmented by an intense dialogue with outside individuals and organisations with a relevance to the subject area.
POST has, however, pioneered various methods of public engagement in the UK. It co-sponsored the first and second UK national »consensus conferences« – on genetically modified foods and radioactive waste management. A particular development was POST’s first-time use of online consultations at the UK Parliament, developed in partnership with committees during the course of an inquiry. POST has also organised public consultation meetings held in the constituency of a Commons Board member.
In 2007, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee recommended that POST should spearhead at the UK Parliament a greater focus on longer term issues. In many ways such a focus has always permeated POST’s work, but, in responding to the committee’s welcome recommendation, POST has put additional effort into this area, often in collaboration with the UK government’s Foresight and Horizon Scanning units.
Most of POST’s publications take the form of one of its well-known four-page »POSTnotes«. After considerable experimentation, this format was chosen largely because busy parliamentarians do not have the time to read lengthier documents. A great deal of effort is put into compressing information into this limit, and in meeting the challenge of making a publication at the same time accessible to non-specialists but commanding the approval of experts in the field. Several other parliamentary TA units have adopted a similar style of summary as part of their publication programme – and POSTnotes have even been translated by them for circulation in their own countries.
POST also produces longer reports. The most recently published was on »Living with Environmental Limits«, while an ongoing longer report is a »Decadal Review of Stem Cell Research«, examining developments in the area over the past ten years, as recommended by a special House of Lords committee that reviewed regulatory legislation. Even with these long reports, one or more »POSTnote« style summaries is produced to make the key findings accessible to those who cannot examine the main report.
All POST publications are subjected to extensive external peer review by government departmental, academic, enterprise and NGO specialists before release. This is a key feature of POST’s publication process.
Either at the start of a study, during its course, or after publication, POST frequently organises parliamentary seminars to discuss its studies. These are complemented by other conferences and workshops. Recent examples include sessions on the Future of Food and Farming and on the Implications of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Incident. Both filled some of the largest meeting rooms in the UK Parliament to capacity.
POST also collaborates with external organisations to hold interactive exhibitions and presentations at the UK Parliament. Notable recent events have covered the future of energy research; robotics futures and polar research.
POST was a founding member of EPTA and has always enthusiastically participated in its activities. POST has been honoured to be approached by countries such as Chile, Japan, Norway and Sweden that were considering creating a parliamentary TA function. POST has also worked closely with the Science Policy Division of UNESCO in its work programme on Science, Technology and Parliaments.
Impact is difficult to assess due to the logistical and administrative obstacles encountered when attempting to survey or interview Parliamentarians, together with the fact that POST is one of many organisations delivering commentary on scientific issues. Nevertheless, some POST qualitative and quantitative data on POST’s impact is available and indicates that POST is a valued organisation. POST is currently developing more systematic ways of gathering and analyzing such data.
Around 220 MPs, 170 Peers, 10 MEPs, 44 MP researchers and 160 other parliamentary staff have »opted in« to receive copies of all POSTnotes. Those who are not on this mailing list still routinely pick up POSTnotes from the parliamentary libraries. Anecdotal reports indicate that Members are often seen holding and using POSTnotes in the debating chamber.
POSTnotes are particularly valued for their impartiality. In a survey conducted in 2009 one MP commented »There is so much depending on scientific judgements and scientific information and often it appears in the media as a particular slant, the key thing is that POST is independent and I have to say that I read their publications and I think they are excellent, just the right length and they are impartial and they are clear and I think it is excellent to have that«. The same survey indicated that over 80 % of parliamentarians (out of a sample of 50) had used POSTnotes more than once in the past year.
In many cases POSTnotes are used to inform the work of Parliamentary Select Committees – for example POSTnote 368 on Rare Earth Metals was used to inform an inquiry into Critical Mineral Resources by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. POSTnotes are also often incorporated into »debate packs« which are information packs provided to Members prior to a debate.
POSTnotes are known to have considerable impact outside Parliament. This is indicated by download statistics, which show that POSTnotes usually account for around a third of all downloads from the Parliamentary website. Each month at least one POSTnote features among the top 5 most downloaded documents. POST also over 1,200 followers on twitter, a number which is rapidly growing, although only a small proportion of these are Members of Parliament. It also has a newsletter which has over 3,500 subscribers.
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
House of Commons
London SW1P 3JA
Director: Dr. Chris Tyler
20 7219 2840
Fax +44 20 7219 2849