Xameerah Malik helps MPs to navigate the science that influences policy
Although it wasn’t an early ambition, working in science policy may have always been on the cards for Xameerah Malik, head of the science and environment section at the House of Commons Library. ‘I was really interested in what was going on in the world. I think there was a part of me that always wanted to do something that would impact decision-makers,’ says Malik. She now uses her chemistry background to provide MPs with accurate scientific information to deal with correspondence from constituents, as well as providing briefings for House of Commons bills and debates.
Malik moved with her family from Nairobi, Kenya to London, UK, when she was eight years old. She doesn’t remember being particularly interested in chemistry until her A-levels, probably due to bad teaching. However, she chose to do an A-level in chemistry with the view to studying environmental science at university. In the end a great chemistry teacher changed her mind and she opted for a chemistry degree at the University of Southampton, with six months in industry.
This led to a job with Syngenta as a research chemist, but after a year she realised it wasn’t quite right for her – she wanted her work to have more immediate impact. Joining the Royal Society of Chemistry’s graduate recruitment scheme led to a role in science policy. Malik admits leaving laboratory science behind did cause some guilt. ‘I certainly felt really conscious of how few women there were in science at senior levels,’ she says.
In 2009 Malik became a committee specialist for the House of Commons science and technology select committee, the panel of MPs tasked with scrutinising government science-related policy. Specialists manage committee inquiries, helping to define the terms of reference, analyse evidence and advise MPs on technical content. ‘Most of them don’t have science backgrounds or enough time to get into the science, so that’s why you have specialist staff,’ says Malik.
Working in the House of Commons was ‘terrifying at first’, but Malik found her footing relatively quickly: ‘I never really felt like I didn’t fit’. She stresses that MPs are mostly ‘just normal people’ and the work is very collaborative. ‘I’ve only ever had really good experiences with the MPs I’ve worked for, and [been shown] respect for the advice and knowledge that I have.’
The first inquiry she was involved in was on homeopathy in 2009 – one that garnered a lot of public attention. Malik says she was really pleased she could provide the chemical context for committee members and make it clear ‘the chemistry of this doesn’t make sense’.
From 2014 she had a number of policy-related positions, inside and outside of science, including a year’s secondment to work with Anne Glover, the then chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission. ‘It was a completely different policy environment and culture,’ she says. ‘Everything in Brussels is on a grand scale compared to national parliaments.’ Malik supported Glover in her policy work on genetically modified crops, and picked up a greater understanding of how policy makers need to understand public views even if they clash with scientific evidence.
More recently, Malik became head of the science and environment section, one of the eight sections in the House of Commons Library, where she manages a team that provides information for MPs and their staff on science or environment-related questions and provides briefings on bills and upcoming House of Commons debates. ‘You get lots of really interesting questions on things that you might never have thought of before,’ says Malik.
Information the library provides for MPs is confidential but Malik says that over the last few years they have had lots of Covid-related queries. Now the focus has shifted to questions on energy, with massive price hikes causing increased interest in scientific progress on renewable energy sources. ‘In the last year I’ve answered questions on chemicals used in fracking, the fire risk of lithium ion batteries, the recyclability of wind turbines and food hygiene,’ says Malik.
Working at the interface of policy and science is like being a translator. ‘We research quite technical things, but you still have to be able to explain it in a way that a layperson can understand, particularly if you know that what you are doing is then going to be used to talk to a constituent,’ says Malik. Her role is not to educate MPs in the details of the science itself but to help them navigate unfamiliar areas to find the answers they need. ‘In parliament, one thing I have noticed in the past when I’ve worked with other scientists is the ones who tend to do the best are the ones who understand that politicians have to balance the science with other issues like politics, cost and ethics,’ she concludes.