In a break from the usual routine of academia, I have spent the past 3 months undertaking a fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), generously funded by the Wellcome Trust Medical History and Humanities programme. POST is an office of both Houses (the Commons and the Lords) which serves to provide Parliamentarians with independent, concise analyses and briefings of policy issues that are of particular current interest. Several research councils fund fellowship for PhD students or 1st year post-docs to spend 3 months producing one of these briefings, which are published in the form of 4-page “POSTnotes”, publically available at www.parliament.uk/post. Whilst working in Parliament I also had the opportunity to attend various All Party Parliamentary Group meetings, on intergenerational relationships, adult social care and equality and human rights, as well as to sit in on sessions in the Lords and Commons. It provided a fascinating insight into the mechanisms of government and the role of subject expertise in informing debate in both chambers.
I arrived at the same time as several other fellows, all PhD students in a range of scientific fields. Being the only non-scientist I was initially somewhat unsure whether I’d be suited to the position or flummoxed by the lunchtime conversations ranging from genetically modified crops to air traffic control to biofuels to cybersecurity to the safety of nuclear power. At the same time I was intrigued to discover what kind of contribution a researcher from the medical humanities, and trained in philosophy, could potentially contribute to an office devoted to policy issues in science and technology.
My brief was to research the challenges and issues associated with the ageing workforce in the UK. As is well understood, the population is ageing, we’re living longer and an increasing proportion of our lives is spent in retirement. There are of course significant economic implications of this ageing population profile, not least the rising cost of public and state pensions, and increasing health and social care costs. One potential way to limit future onerous pension costs would be to encourage people to work later into life. The Pensions Bill, currently causing quite a furore in Parliament, sets out planned increases to the age at which one is entitled to a state pension: rising to 65 for women by 2018, and 66 for both men and women by 2020. However, whilst legislating for longer working lives may be a necessary step, if older workers face obstacles to staying in work, or finding new work again if unemployed, then we run the risk of simply increasing the unemployment rate for people approaching retirement age. This is a hugely complex area, with many differing and strongly held views about the roles and responsibilities of employers, the state and older workers themselves: it was my task to seek out and interview various authorities and put together a succinct account of the most pressing issues to help inform parliamentary debate.
As part of this research I contacted people from government departments, academia, NGOs with an interest in ageing and age discrimination, and business representatives.
Although completely new to this field of study, what I learned was a fascinating social history surrounding the concept of retirement; how attitudes towards staying in work or looking forward to retirement vary tremendously and these cut across divisions in gender, socio-economic group, occupational status, health and employment history. One of the most challenging aspects of this work was to unpick the myriad different perspectives and contrasting types of ‘evidence’ from widely varying sources. These ranged from economic analyses of the likely impacts of extending working lives and governmental reports on the potential health and social benefits of staying in work, to qualitative studies of older workers’ attitudes towards their workplaces and continuing work, reports from NGOs on the continuing significance of age discrimination in recruitment and employment practices, and the impact of vast social inequalities in health on the very possibility of workers continuing in employment up to and beyond pension age.
Public policy is something of a blunt tool with which to address the issues facing any specific age group, but particularly one as heterogeneous as those approaching retirement age. Even questioning what the concept of ‘retirement’ means to different people opens up a range of further questions that require some understanding of the social context in which employment decisions are made (or forced upon people) and the challenge for my briefing note was to get across something of this complexity succinctly in 4 pages, whilst keeping the note readable for a lay audience. While daunting, I think my philosophical training helped immeasurably in this task. The methods of critical reflection that I have learned as a philosophy student, together with a natural distrust and wariness of jargon (lamentably omnipresent in the realm of policy) are, I came to believe, valuable resources in this kind of environment.
In thinking about the wider implications of undertaking this fellowship, my time at POST speaks to the broader question of whether and how the humanities, and in this case philosophy, can fruitfully intersect with the domain of science. My natural inclination is, unsurprisingly, to defend the idea that philosophy can be valuable, for science policy in particular. This is not owing to the provision of any grand philosophical theorising but rather to assist in critically reflecting on what evidence is and isn’t telling us; analysing what terms are more obfuscatory than illuminating; and examining whether what lies at the heart of ostensibly persuasive policy statements are coherent and valid arguments that speak in favour of one position over another.
The POST fellowship was intellectually stimulating and tremendously rewarding: I’d recommend any PhD students or early post-docs funded by Wellcome’s biomedical ethics or medical history and humanities streams, with an interest in policy and Parliament, to apply for the next available awards.