Category Archives: Policy

Forging links between the scientific community and the devolved nations

by Henry Lovett, Policy & Public Affairs Officer

Politics does not only happen in Westminster. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a complex system of internal devolution, with Parliaments or Assemblies in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, as well as London. The Physiological Society is always keen to engage with the devolved administrations to discuss local industries and university research specialities, as well as the impact of their unique local political situation on UK-wide concerns such as the Industrial Strategy. Our policy team has just come back from Edinburgh, where Science and the Parliament 2017 was taking place in the city’s impressive science centre, Dynamic Earth.

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Talks being given at the Welsh Assembly for “Science and the Assembly”

The theme of Science and the Parliament was “Science, Innovation and the Economy”, but of course this was broadened in everyone’s mind to include Brexit. The UK government has claimed that science, technology, and innovation will be at the heart of our post-Brexit economy, and the discussion centred on what this means for Scotland (an area that voted to remain in the EU, which was also a big issue in the Scottish Independence referendum). Despite being a hotbed of commercialisation of university-derived research, there was much discussion about how to improve the progress of start-up companies in Scotland. They take longer to reach a turnover of £1m than anywhere else in the UK or most of Europe. It was felt that the new structures around research and innovation funding, UK Research and Innovation, need to include significant representation from Scotland (and the other devolved nations) not to become too England-centric. There was also general concern that fundamentals such as infrastructure and connectivity affect start-up companies, so investment has to be made to make areas of Scotland attractive places to base a company.

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Physiological Society Members who visited our stand at “Science and the Parliament” in Edinburgh

Earlier in the year we also attended Science and the Assembly in Cardiff, and Science and Stormont in Belfast. Each of these events has a slightly different take on how to explore science in the local area. Cardiff focused on antimicrobial research, while Belfast titled their event “Skills for Science and Innovation”. The research discussed in Cardiff was very impressive, both from local universities and companies based in the area. The talks in Belfast had a much more political focus, with concerns being raised about the effects of the ongoing suspension of the Northern Irish Assembly. This was halting new initiatives, including those designed to address the serious problem of the supply of science teachers in Northern Ireland.

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Society Members who visited our stand at “Science and Stormont” in Belfast

At each of these events we were delighted to have an exhibition stand to raise the profile of physiology and increase recognition of the policy work we are undertaking. These events present great opportunities to mingle with people involved locally in scientific research and outreach, in order to discuss everyone’s projects and initiatives. We were pleased to also welcome Physiological Society members based locally to discuss our policy work with them, find out their views and concerns for The Society to address, and generally catch up about the exciting physiology research being done across the UK.

Thanks are due to all the Members who visited us, all the politicians who attended and spoke at the events, and the Royal Society of Chemistry for arranging these valuable opportunities to connect with politicians and scientists across the UK.

Government fails to reassure over post-Brexit science

by Henry Lovett, Policy & Public Affairs Officer

Nothing about Brexit has been decided yet. This was made plain at the recent Labour and Conservative party conferences, which The Physiological Society policy team attended. Many of the fringe meetings at both events were either explicitly about Brexit, or had their discussion influenced by the shadow of Brexit hanging over them. The twin questions of “what will it look like?” and “how will we handle it?” do not yet have even proto-answers, let alone settled consensus. I worry that a sense of complacency exists around some aspects of the transition from EU member to a situation unspecified beyond not an EU member. Many of the facets of EU membership which are of great significance to science fall within this category.

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The UK has done well from European programmes for funding scientific research, with Horizon 2020 (H2020) being the current iteration of this scheme, winning more funding than it has contributed to the programme. There are other advantages beyond money, too, including access to facilities overseas, and an easy route to setting up collaborations. We are happy with this participation, and Europe is happy to have us. The government has suggested, without giving details, that it is willing to continue to buy access to useful activities such as this. But, examining the fine print, it may not be as easy as that. A number of non-EU countries have “associated country” status to H2020, individually negotiated to allow them to participate. One of these, Switzerland, had access severely restricted in 2014 after a referendum meant the Swiss government would not ratify Croatia’s inclusion in EU freedom of movement. Access was only restored in 2016 after a government compromise. One of the UK government’s stated aims from Brexit is to “control immigration”, i.e. restrict free movement from Europe. There is no reason to assume this will not also result in being disallowed from being awarded H2020 funds, should we wish to participate or not. It will take delicate negotiation, not a blithe assumption, for us to continue to enjoy the benefits of association to the programme.

The Treasury has said it will underwrite Horizon 2020 grants applied-for before our leaving date of March 2019, and signalled it may be willing to extend this. However, this short-term reassurance could also be seen as a long-term worry. The successor to Horizon 2020, Framework Programme 9, has not been mentioned. Underwriting grants is not the same as participation in the programme, and if the intention was to retain full participation in EU research programmes, underwriting would not be necessary.

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Scientists working on the continent, foreseeing these future difficulties in working with UK collaborators, are in some cases acting pre-emptively. British researchers have been asked to remove themselves from H2020 funding applications, or at least to switch from leading bids to being junior partners. About a fortnight after the Conservative conference, Science Minister Jo Johnson told the Science & Technology Select Committee, in response to fears of further exclusion of UK scientists from Horizon 2020 bids, “We have terrific scientists in this country; why wouldn’t you want them to play central roles in your consortia, wherever you’re from in the world?” Unfortunately that doesn’t acknowledge the reputational damage we know is already being done to UK science. We know from research we have carried out that European researchers could reply with any number of reasons, including fears of a lower chance of bid success, being unable to travel to the UK or facing much higher costs, fears of the UK collaborator being forced to drop out before the project’s conclusion, potentially facing incompatible regulatory regimes, or just an overall air of foreigners’ presence not being particularly welcome in the UK.

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Data from our Brexit survey about physiologists’ reactions to the vote.

The vastly-enhanced global mobility of the last decades has also been good to science. Ideas can be proposed and critiqued in person rather than by correspondence, and people can bring their knowledge and experience to bear at the forefront of their discipline, wherever that research happens to be conducted. However, the rights of EU citizens post-Brexit, to either remain in the UK or migrate here in future, are still very uncertain. None of the statements issued by the Prime Minister or the government have given full clarity, despite repeated insistences that EU citizens will not be part of the Brexit bargaining. Scientists are demonstrating their opinion of this with their feet, leaving the country or declining offers of employment that would bring them here. Other countries are taking full advantage of this disincentive to the UK, aggressively marketing their science facilities and available grants (including EU funding). Ireland in particular is painting itself as attractive to UK scientists, especially those currently in Northern Ireland, for whom a move over the border would retain their EU status while being geographically close.

The government will not have a lot of “easy wins” during the negotiations with the EU, so in some ways it is understandable that they would concentrate on the trickier aspects. However, the certainty displayed that science will pass through the negotiations unscathed seems unwarranted, especially given that science and innovation are identified priorities in the Industrial Strategy; keystones of the future UK economy. The government would do well to pay rather closer attention.

Examining physiology as a global discipline

by Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is currently playing host to the 38th Congress of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS), which is a global network of physiological societies. Released at this event is the report Physiology – Current Trends and Future Challenges. This is a collaboration between the IUPS and The Physiological Society looking at the discipline of physiology and the state it is found in around the world. Physiologists and students of the subject have different experiences and face different challenges depending on their local environment in terms of funding, regulation, job opportunities, public attitude, and any number of other variables.

IUPS sought input from its member organisations, receiving 27 contributions, the content of which make up the data underpinning the report. These responses covered all six inhabited continents, and physiological societies large and small. Most were proud to describe the accomplishments in their country, but many set these against a background of declining government funding for research and greater difficulty in training for in vivo skills and conducting animal-based experimentation. One of the few exceptions is the UK, where the government has pledged to increase research funding over the coming years, although there are concerns around the impact of Brexit on international collaboration.

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Responses about the teaching of physiology varied widely; in some countries the discipline is not taught as an individual undergraduate subject, but others have a number of routes into physiology. It is covered in medical, veterinary, dental and nursing courses, and a number of countries are beginning to highlight the clinical relevance of physiological knowledge.

The general public in some countries can feel very far-removed from scientific research, which affects the perception when governments spend money on science. It is crucial to cement the link in people’s minds between research and health, prosperity, and being able to go about daily life. Many people are aware of pressing problems such as climate change, pollution, and ageing unhealthy populations, but do not necessarily support basic research when they cannot be told a direct application. It is hoped that societies will be able to share knowledge on how best to shore up support for basic research.

The survey also considered the career prospects of new graduates. Globally, physiologists have good opportunities in academic positions as post-doctoral fellows, research associates in research laboratories, and as faculty members. However, the academic sector does not produce enough opportunities to have a position for each graduate. Other professional opportunities are being sought by new PhDs as the struggle to obtain research funding support is very onerous. Career opportunities for physiologists in non-academic institutions appear to be good in several countries, be they related to science or more general graduate careers such as finance.

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The report compiled responses from 27 countries

An exercise such as this survey is not merely to take stock of the state physiology is found in, but to offer a route towards improving it. The report offers recommendations for member societies to work with IUPS and create programmes in their own countries. Due to differing situations it is not envisaged that these will be universally and identically implemented, but the IUPS is creating new Regional Representatives to work closely with individual societies to drive effective development.

While no organisation is yet in the optimum state for driving forward international physiology, there is hope in the future. This report is the first step in a unifying and momentum-raising process to bolster physiology worldwide and achieve its universal recognition as a vital and robust discipline.

Download the report here.

The dangers of careless press releases

by Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

This article originally appeared in Physiology News

Simon Cork

You open the morning paper and are excited to find an article about a newly published study in your area of interest. You start reading it and quickly realise that the journalist has completely taken the press release out of context. What was originally some preliminary cell culture work has turned into a front page splash solving an age-old problem or heralding a new cure. Sound familiar?

We live in a world of 24-hour rolling news coverage. The necessity to write punchy news headlines and be the first to break stories has never been greater. Because of this, it’s very easy for journalists to take press releases out of their original scientific context, and ‘sex’ them up in a way that sells. This is particularly the case for my own area of research, obesity.

The world is suffering from an obesity epidemic especially (but not exclusively) in the Western world. Reports suggest around two-thirds of people are dieting at any one time, and most of these diets don’t work. This is why stories about miracle weight loss cures and therapies are cat nip to journalists and readers alike.

Frustrated by the misrepresentation of obesity in the press, I decided to sign up to the Science Media Centre (SMC), not knowing it would lead to my television debut.

The remit of the SMC is to provide journalists with expert quotes on scientific studies that are likely to garner media attention. In the world of obesity and diabetes, this usually involves studies showing that eating too much of X will lead to diabetes, or that cutting Y out of your diet reduces body weight.

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I recently commented on a new study, which had followed approximately 20,000 children over a 10-year period, some born via caesarean and some born naturally, and found that those who were born via caesarean were more likely to be obese in later life. I was asked to comment whether or not the conclusions of the study were sound, and offer a possible explanation for the findings. In fact, this study adds to other literature supporting this relationship, and the most likely cause is exposure to different microbes when born naturally versus via caesarean, although the link hasn’t fully been proven.

Since the study used a large cohort, the results were more statistically significant. However, since it was an observational study there isn’t a causative link.

My comments were picked up by a number of news agencies, including The Guardian, Daily Mail and the BBC News website. Nerve-rackingly, I even got a call from the producer of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who was interested in picking this piece up and wondered if I would pop into the studio the next morning. This was swiftly followed by Sky News, Jeremy Vine and BBC News.

Now all of this was a far cry from the ELISA that I was planning on carrying out that day, but was an interesting insight into the angle journalists take on scientific stories. Having received the call asking if I’d like to go on the Today programme at 11 pm the previous evening, I spent a number of hours doing a comprehensive PubMed search of all the most recent meta-analysis studies investigating caesarean births and obesity risk. Turns out all they’re really interested in is why. If the Brexit debate has taught us anything, it’s that the public switch-off at the sight of a percentage symbol or talk of numbers. What people want to know is why and how it affects them. So my interviews mostly revolved around why caesarean births seem to increase the risk of obesity and whether there is anything we can do to mitigate the risk. That and trying to politely convince a caller to the Jeremy Vine Show that her child’s obesity was probably more the result of her confessed feeding of copious amounts of chocolate to him, rather than his method of birth.

If, like me, you find yourself at odds with journalistic reporting of science stories, I would urge you to join the database at the Science Media Centre. You’re not guaranteed to get TV time, but you might get your name in the paper. Just make sure that you at least know enough about whatever it is you’re commenting on to make it through a 30-minute conversation with Jeremy Vine and John Humphrys!

Parliamentary Links Day 2017: Connecting science and politicians

By Charles Laing, @spacecharlieuk

The largest science event in the annual parliamentary calendar was held last week, with scientists and engineers from all over the UK meeting Members of both Houses of Parliament. Parliamentary Links Day provides an opportunity for learned societies to have their views heard and represented in Parliament, and with Brexit looming this year was particularly important.

It was great to be invited along, after recently joining the Policy & Communications Committee of the Physiological Society, so I could listen to the discussion of some of the major issues facing UK science today.

 

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The title for this year’s event was ‘UK Science and Global Opportunities?’ and included talks from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow; the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson; and Chair Designate of UK Research and Innovation, Sir John Kingman. Interesting sessions included a panel hosted by BBC science journalist Pallab Ghosh, with several opportunities for the audience to engage and ask questions.

A key theme for all involved that emerged from the discussions was the real need to ensure that the level of UK science funding continues post-Brexit. Sir John Kingman noted that all major UK political parties had solid manifesto commitments indicating the importance of science to the UK and its wider economy – a hopeful sign as we exit the European Union.

Other matters of concern among the room full of scientists, policymakers, politicians, and leaders in the science sector included the issue of international collaborations and how this would be dealt with in the future. Consensus was that in order for the UK to access the full range of global opportunities moving forward, access to intellectual talent overseas should not be a barrier to fruitful collaborations.

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Following discussions, lunch was hosted out on the House of Lords’ terrace. A great way to finish off a packed day full of debates. The Physiological Society table was joined by Baroness Margaret Prosser and Lord Ronald Oxburgh – both members of the House of Lords – as well as Dr Sarah Main, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. The guest speaker after lunch was Professor Alex Halliday, Vice-President of the Royal Society, who spoke about the importance of the people in the room flying the flag for UK science.

The next generation of scientists grill policymakers

By Peter Aldiss, BHF-funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham, @Peter_Aldiss

Voice of the Future, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Biology, gives young researchers like me the opportunity to ask the upper echelons of science policy the questions that matter most to us. Quizzing MPs on the future of British science in Westminster is not something I imagined having the opportunity to do. Despite the sceptic in me supposing it to be no more than a ‘tick-box exercise’, I kept an open mind.

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Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation was first up. She spoke passionately about the North-South divide, the numerous inequalities in STEM, the importance of globalisation, and how investment in technology can drive growth.  She explained how things would differ under Labour, though with the party in its current state it will be a long time before they can realise their ambitions to transform anything, let alone STEM. In what turned out to be an afternoon of carefully scripted answers, Onwurah deserves a huge amount of credit for going off script on multiple occasions.

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A quick changeover and I was sat at the horseshoe ready to grill Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Advisor.  The first question was about forensic science, which Sir Mark explained is hugely important to many areas and will continue to receive funding and support. In response to a question about how the research community can encourage publication of negative results, he clarified that there are two types of negative results: those that are negative due to poor study design and those that are negative when a study is methodologically sound. Did this really answer the question? I’m not convinced it did. As head of the new merger of Research Councils, I hope Sir Mark will address this issue in the future.

Hugely impressive throughout was Sir Mark’s ability to glance at his notes briefly then discuss every topic – genetic manipulation, space research, environment, inequalities in STEM – in vast detail. It’s no surprise that he is the Chief Scientific Advisor.

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation was up to bat next. The first question was about the effect of Brexit and whether we will continue to be attractive to international students. He assured us that we should continue to collaborate and communicate with our colleagues in the EU, and that there are no plans to cap international student numbers. He said there are no plans to merge research and teaching funding, as ‘blue sky’ research is fundamental and will continue to be supported. I’m not entirely convinced it is supported currently. Apparently, the Conservative Party allocate more to STEM than they originally intended and Mr. Johnson said this shows how highly they value the area.

Questions on how the UK can improve commercialisation of research, increase patent numbers, support biotech spin-outs and address air pollution followed. It struck me that Mr. Johnson didn’t feel there were any real issues and spoke like someone who is not worried about the future. Everything is bright, Brexit is not a problem and the UK will always be strong and a leader in STEM. I’m not convinced, but of course he has to toe the party line.

Science and Technology Panel

The closing act was the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, a cross-party group whose job it is to ensure government policy is based on solid evidence. They spoke about the importance of the Committee and the weight cross-party agreement can carry. They also discussed the policy positions behind artificial intelligence and space travel, specifically concern around the former and excitement around the latter.

The ‘post-truth’ world was brought up; despite an apparent disdain for experts scientists, they are apparently hugely respected and trusted by the public, much more so than politicians. On improving the number of women in STEM, the SNP’s Carol Monaghan made it clear no baby girl should ever be forced into pink or made to play with dolls, but should play with fun toys like Lego. Someone asked the members of the committee why they became MPs. One answer stuck with me: that Westminster is where you can effect change. “Order, order” was the cue to finish a very interesting afternoon.

All in all I enjoyed the experience tremendously. I certainly didn’t feel it was a ‘tick-box’ exercise, but did come away feeling it had been a recruitment drive. Speakers made numerous references to needing MPs with backgrounds in STEM, and encouraged us to consider a career in politics. I would like to think, as I’m sure all others in STEM would, that we can create change and influence government policy without becoming MPs. Hats-off to the Royal Society of Biology for a top event and to all who attended for making the event a success.

Brexit is a major concern for physiologists

By Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer, The Physiological Society

It is dominating the news. It is dominating conversations over lunch, and over after-work pints. It is dominating Twitter. It is Brexit, and it is a big deal. No matter your personal feelings on leaving the European Union, every sector will have to adjust to the impending arrival of this new situation. Scientific research, and specifically physiology, is no different. Therefore we carried out a survey of our members into their views, their fears and their priorities concerning Brexit and physiology. We were pleased to receive 350 responses and case studies, and have collated them in an infographic to show the discipline’s views.

Here we shall dive into some of the conclusions in a bit more detail. The most fundamental issue to understand is the opinion on the big question – did physiologists want to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’? Well, of those respondents eligible to vote, 85% wanted to remain. A significant number of people also said that they were not UK nationals, but would have voted remain if given the chance. So that is not in much doubt. However, of those who voted to leave, only two said they would now change their mind, so that view is definitely still entrenched for most leavers.

Opinions about the key issue in the campaign period ahead of the referendum were split widely. The most important issue for respondents was the international movement of people, cited by 34% of those who took part in the survey. As for the most important goal to achieve in Brexit negotiations, free movement for scientists and continued access to EU research funding tied with 33% of the vote each, but free movement for students also received 9% of votes, showing that free movement overall is the most critical issue for the discipline. Large proportions of respondents had already lost funding or collaborators since the referendum result was announced, or seen colleagues and students leave positions in this country. It is plain that, despite our not having left the EU yet, the effects of Brexit are already making themselves known.
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Our survey reveals that scientists are concerned about the impacts Brexit will have on science. When asked to rate how they had felt on referendum results day about the prospects for science after Brexit (with 0 being very negative, 5 being no change, and 10 being very positive), respondents’ average score was 2. With over six months having passed since then (when the survey was taken), giving time for the result to sink in, the average current score was… 2. In fact, of those people whose view had changed, 78% said the prospects for science had got worse. This was countered by a few who had greatly increased their score, leading to no appreciable overall change. Comments expressed a lack of faith in the promises given by government to shore up the research sector, or that they had not heard any government comments about science at all.SGD_Infographic_Brexit_SocialMedia

What of the sector’s actions to address the concerns of our members and other scientists? It would seem all of science needs to be more vocal in attempts to stave off the possible damage of Brexit to research. 52% of people said the sector was not active enough in response to Brexit, with only 47% saying enough is being done.

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We are using the results of this survey to highlight the views of science to politicians during the Brexit process. Our infographic has been sent to all MPs, who we hope will find our results helpful and keep science uppermost in their minds as the Brexit deal is negotiated and ratified.

For more information on this survey, or the rest of our policy work, please contact policy@physoc.org.

Download our infographic here.