Let's Have Parliamentary Science Interns

Ted Hsu
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800px-Centre_Block_of_Parliament_Hill,_CanadaMembers of Parliament and Senators regularly receive interns to work in their  Parliament Hill offices — from their home ridings, from across Canada and even from foreign countries. Interns bring a fresh perspective and energy to parliamentarians’ offices and carry that special experience with them after they leave.

While an MP must spend a lot of time on connecting and communicating through correspondence, meetings, speeches, or attendance at events, his or her staff perform many of the essential tasks behind the scenes.

One thing that distinguishes the staff of a parliamentarian’s office from other employees of Parliament is that they are political staff. They are the ones who are trusted to share information, ideas and advice, in confidence, to help make policy, legislative and communications decisions. They are the ones who are connected to other parliamentarians’ offices, to networks within political parties and to the party leaders’ offices.

The political staff on Parliament Hill is overwhelmingly, as expected, composed of those who have been students of politics and government. There are very few scientists or engineers. Indeed, even off Parliament Hill scientists are not well connected to political networks, compared to other groups such as lawyers, educators, doctors, and unionized labour.

While scientists and engineers are engaged to some extent by volunteering in local riding associations or acting as ad hoc sources of friendly information and advice, I believe that both Parliament and the science and engineering professions would benefit from a closer relationship. Indeed, I believe there is recent anecdotal evidence that scientists, particularly young scientists, are eager to contribute more to the political process.

Establishing a Parliamentary Science Intern program is a simple and inexpensive way to nurture such a connection.

This idea is not a novel one. For example, in the United States, about 30 national science and engineering professional societies work cooperatively to sponsor the Congressional Science Fellowships. Congressional Science Fellows spend a year working on the staffs of members of Congress. These fellows are completely integrated into the office of the Member, and contribute to drafting and researching legislation, meeting with constituents and professional stakeholders, and communications. Fellows get the chance to learn about the political process, networks, and culture first-hand, and at the same time use their technical backgrounds and professional networks to bring scientific input and expertise to Capitol Hill.

Science and technology issues are becoming increasingly complex and are touching on more and more areas of public concern. Parliament would benefit from the expertise of science interns working on science and technology policy and related pieces of legislation. The culture of the political world is also very different from that of science and engineering. The political world, which must always strive to stay connected with the wider population, would be well served by an injection of the culture of science. At the same time, these interns will take lessons about how Parliament and Canadian political culture works back to the scientific community, to help scientists better connect with Parliament, and the public.

The Parliamentary Science Intern should work for at least 10 months, from September through June, to have some time for orientation and to witness the entire parliamentary cycle.

Ph.D. holders would be favoured. Achieving a Ph.D. demonstrates a certain level of commitment to the intern’s discipline in science or engineering. A Ph.D. is likely to become a lifelong ambassador for science and politics between the scientific and political communities. Finally, a Ph.D. intern will have a certain experience in research, original and critical thinking, and communication, as well as professional connections in science and engineering networks to draw upon for the benefit of the parliamentarian’s office.

The intern must state what political party he or she wants to work for, and sign and be comfortable with the usual loyalty and confidentiality agreements. Partisanship is not always respected in the scientific community, but choosing a party and a parliamentarian to work for is the best way for an intern become immersed in the political parties, process and culture of Canada’s parliamentary democracy. This will produce the personal and professional ties between scientists and Parliament that will ultimately be the long term benefit of a Parliamentary Science Interns program.

The Parliamentary Science Interns should be salaried, with the bulk of the salary paid for by professional societies (most likely pooling their resources). I would also like to see the parliamentarian cover a significant portion of the salary, giving them an incentive to make the best use of the intern’s time and to incorporate them fully into their work as a parliamentarian.

As a start, I would expect that funders of science internships would support at least one science intern for each party with official standing in the House of Commons. The parliamentary science program should be as multi-partisan as possible. There is an existing Parliamentary Internship Program for the House of Commons that may be able to coordinate this program.

It is my hope that the professional societies will find the funding to build this bridge to the world of federal politics and that, when political discussions take place on Parliament Hill, science will be at the table to inform, to criticize, and to improve the policies of our federal representatives and political parties.