Blog post by Emily Prpa, PGR student in Diabetes & Nutritional Sciences
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology offer a range of different Fellowships to UK PhD students (in 2nd year or above) in biology and health sciences, energy and environment, physical and digital sciences, and social sciences. The Fellowships give students the chance to work with POST or other teams within Parliament, such as the House of Commons and House of Lords Libraries and the Select Committees. I carried out my 3-month POST Fellowship between September and December 2020, extending the final year of my PhD at King’s College London. Despite being part of the first intake of PhD students to participate in this scheme remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have still taken away invaluable knowledge, skills and lasting friendships.
I worked on a project researching the reformulation of food and drink products. This required me to scope the research area and conduct interviews with stakeholders in order to write a 4-page summary on the topic, known as a POSTnote. A POSTnote is an impartial, balanced and peer-reviewed analysis of new and emerging research evidence which is provided to the UK Parliament. As a POST Fellow you are immediately given a great deal of responsibility – within my first few weeks I was interviewing key stakeholders (from across academia, government, industry and the not-for-profit sector) and planning the first draft of the POSTnote. However, during my time at POST, I worked collaboratively with my supervisor, editing and redrafting the report to produce a balanced, impartial and succinct overview of the topic. The final draft was reviewed by POST scientific advisers, board members and interviewed stakeholders.
The finished POSTnote on food and drink reformulation to reduce sugar, salt and fat levels can be found here. In brief, food and drink reformulation is one tool used to promote healthier diets and reduce the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease. The POSTnote highlights that it is difficult to measure whether current UK policies encouraging product reformulation (voluntary and fiscal measures) have had a direct positive impact on public health. It also describes challenges and opportunities for reformulation such as product quality, industry engagement and consumer attitudes. Finally, it highlights that improving public health through better diet requires a number of complementary policy approaches alongside reformulation, including incentivising healthy food and creating a healthy food environment.
I am proud to be an author of this POSTnote. However, I came away from the Fellowship with so much more than this publication. Firstly, I learnt a unique style of written science communication – given that MPs and Peers are extremely busy, I crafted the skill of translating complex scientific information into concise lay terms. I was also exposed to the inner workings of Parliament and built important relationships with key stakeholders (such as Public Health England, the Food & Drink Federation and leading academic researchers). I delved into a novel and exciting topic of food science by using a range of resources including government reports, publications from the House of Commons and Lords libraries and grey literature – stepping out of my comfort zone by not solely relying on academic research.
I was worried that carrying out my Fellowship during the COVID-19 pandemic would affect the overall experience. However, I needn’t have worried. During my time at POST, I attended conferences on nutrition and policy, had a tour of Parliament and joined coffee breaks to meet other advisers and Fellows at POST – all virtual of course. The team at POST helped create a community between all the current Fellows and organised additional workshops for us, including a QnA session on policy careers.
I strongly encourage any PhD student to apply for this scheme. You can sign-up to the POST newsletter or follow @POST_UK on Twitter to stay updated on the Fellowship opportunities available at POST. These are also a great way to see newly approved POSTnote topics; if any are within your field of research, it is worth getting in touch with the lead adviser because your expertise could be valued.