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.
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.
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.
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.