Bringing STEM into Parliament


By Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

Two weeks ago, I, along with around 150 other scientists, engineers, and mathematicians descended onto Westminster for this year’s STEM for Britain event. This annual event is organised by the Science and Technology Select Committee and has been happening since 1997 (barring a small break following the death of the original organiser, Dr Eric Wharton, in 2007).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords, thereby raising the profile of both UK STEM research and early career researchers. Policy and lawmaker attendees get a glimpse into the breadth of research being undertaken at UK institutions. Early career researchers step outside of their bubbles, albeit for a few hours.

Every year, the event receives around 500 applicants, of which around 35% are invited to present. Perhaps most enticing to many early career researchers, are the three prizes awarded to presenters in each category (Engineering, Mathematics, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Physics and Chemistry), to the sum of £1000, £2000 and £3000 for third, second, and first prize respectively. The first prize winners for each category are then put forward for the prestigious Westminster Prize (this year I’m happy to say won by the winner of the Biological and Biomedical sciences category, but alas not me…).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords

The most striking point that will come as little surprise to many of you is the sheer number of non-UK nationals represented at this event. This is of particular pertinence this year as the UK looks to invoke stronger border controls following its departure from the EU in 2019. The many non-UK nationals invited to attend this event show the strong contribution made by foreign nationals to the UK’s research output.

Presenting my research: using vagal nerve activity to better control appetite

I presented my research on a new technological approach to treating obesity. According to Public Health England, almost 63% of the UK population were overweight or obese in 2015. The annual cost to the NHS of treating obesity and its associated co-morbidities was £27bn. Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

A therapy called vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is gaining popularity. It involves electrically stimulating the vagus nerve to “trick” the brain into feeling full and therefore limiting food intake. The issue with current VNS therapies is their lack of physiological feedback. This means that since the nerve is continuously stimulated, its ability to control appetite reduces with time.

Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

We developed a device that regulates nerve stimulation in response to food intake. After we eat, our gut normally releases hormones that say, “I am full.” This message is relayed to the vagal nerve and changes its electrical output. Our device measures this change in nerve activity and only signals when it hears the vagal nerve giving the ‘full’ signal.

The UK government is beginning to introduce policy, such as the sugar tax announced last year, to tackle the growing obesity problem in the UK. Most policy announcements encourage physical activity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go far enough. Increasing evidence suggests that once a person becomes obese, changes in their physiology mean that the chances of maintaining a reduced body weight after dieting are slim (no pun intended). We need more policies aimed at preventing obesity in the first place, likely by targeting children.

It is important to remember that the majority of politicians are not scientists. Events such as STEM for Britain are important for bridging the gap between basic science and government policy. Long may it continue.

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