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Another dimension to politics as MP visits Imperial astrophysicist

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Royal Society pairing scheme brings politician to College physics department<em> - News</em>

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By Danielle Reeves
Wednesday 12 September 2007

Dr Jaffe and MP Anne SnelgroveAnne Snelgrove, MP for Swindon, was treated to an afternoon in the life of a theoretical astrophysicist this week, when she visited Dr Andrew Jaffe  at Imperial's Department of Physics as part of the Royal Society's MP-scientist pairing scheme.

Ms Snelgrove was introduced to some of Dr Jaffe's colleagues in the astrophysics research group, including post-doctoral researchers and post graduate students. Over the course of the morning Ms Snelgrove was given an overview of the work he and his colleagues carry out looking at the constituents of the Universe, from nearby stars through the most distant galaxies and beyond.

The group of students, researchers and post-docs also engaged Ms Snelgrove in a lively debate about science funding, academic career structure, university fees and academic salaries and workloads. As a result, Ms Snelgrove promised to ask parliamentary questions on some of these issues.

Dr Jaffe explains that his main aim for the day was to give Ms Snelgrove an insight into the day-to-day routine of a university physics department:

"You always see politicians touring around schools on the TV news, but I think the daily workings of research universities like Imperial can sometimes be overlooked. It's important that those involved in government, and who make decisions about scientific funding, find out about what we're doing here and really get a handle on both the opportunities and challenges faced by scientists working in Britain.

"It's also very important to me, as a theoretical astrophysicist, to highlight the continued importance and value of 'blue skies' research like the work carried out by myself and my colleagues, in the face of increasing emphasis being placed on research with an economically measurable output," he added.

The visit took place as part of the Royal Society's MP-scientist pairing scheme, which was established in 2001 and has so far seen over 80 MPs and scientists take part. Earlier this year Dr Jaffe spent a week in Westminster where he was able to shadow Ms Snelgove as she undertook her parliamentary duties. He also observed a number of science related committees and attended seminars on the interaction between science, research and government. "It was very interesting to learn about parliamentary processes, and to see what impact science has – or doesn't have – on proceedings. I was both heartened and disheartened in equal measure by what I saw," he said.

Commenting on the pairing scheme, Dr Jaffe said: "I think this kind of scheme is extremely important, as it enables scientists and politicians to learn about the very different, yet often closely linked, worlds in which they work. The country needs both scientists who are savvy about the way governments work, and politicians who are sympathetic to the particular issues faced by research scientists.

"The Royal Society's pairing scheme goes some way to achieving desirable levels of understanding between both parties – I certainly learned a great deal from my time in Westminster and I hope Anne did here today too."

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