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Daniel McDowell post 2 - POST Fellowship blog

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The POST Fellowship sponsored by IFST, consists of spending 3 months at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology at Westminster and writing a POSTnote on a scientific subject. A POSTnote is a 4 page briefing on a scientific subject with the aim of informing MPs and Peers about complex topics which they may not have much prior knowledge of. Although POSTnotes are written by many different people (both permanent staff and fellows),  they all conform to a certain style which makes them impartial, well-researched and concise. Having successfully applied for this opportunity last year, I started my Fellowship in October 2014. I took a break from studying edible oil authentication for my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast and headed to Westminster where I was given the title of “sugar and health” to write a POSTnote on.

I had little experience with my POSTnote topic before I went to Westminster which made me feel quite apprehensive about what lay ahead. The great thing about POST is that there are always a bunch of POSTnotes being written at any one time, so when I arrived I got to meet other Fellows at different stages of the writing process. I soon discovered that many of the Fellows did not have intimate knowledge of their topics before they came to Westminster and that part of the POST experience was to educate themselves on the topic. When I was speaking to some of the Fellows nearing the end of their 3 months, I was amazed at the deep level of understanding they had acquired about their topics in such as short space of time.

The first stage of my POSTnote was reading scientific literature on my topic and compiling a list of people and organisations I wanted interview. My aim was to interview a broad range of stakeholders concerned with sugar including academics, nutritionists, food industry representatives, politicians. The combination of doing my own reading and talking to experts in interviews meant I soon became aware that there was not a general consensus regarding the impact of sugar on health. There has been a lot of scientific evidence generated on the topic of sugar, which do not always reach the same conclusions. The most challenging part of writing my POSTnote was trying to establish fact from conjecture and produce a document which all stakeholders deemed a fair representation.

I continually drafted my POSTnote over the 3 months at Westminster, this entailed adding new information and suggestions I had received, then discussing the work with my supervisor. This drafting process helped my writing skills greatly, I learned to critique my own work, which in turn raised my standard of writing. Interviewing the various experts on sugar further emphasised the complexity of the topic I was writing about, as no two people tended to have the same opinion. A draft of my POSTnote was sent out for external review towards the end of my 3 months and the experts I had been interviewing got a chance to comment on my work. It was challenging to address everybody’s opinions but between my supervisor and me, we were able to complete the report to a standard we thought was fair and informative.

There is of course much more to the POST Fellowship than writing a POSTnote. During my time there I had access to the Palace of Westminster where I was able to watch Prime Minster's Question time, chat with my local MP and see all the tourist attractions London has to offer. My time at POST was enjoyable, insightful and challenging. The experience has helped me understand the direction I would like to take my own career and taught me a huge amount about communicating scientific information. I am every grateful for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology for letting me work with them and The Institute of Food Science and Technology for their sponsorship and support.

The deadline for the 2015-16 Post Fellowship is 11 May.

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