Category Archives: Policy

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.

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.

Stress in modern Britain: An update to the seminal 50 year old survey

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

In the 21st century, stress is all-pervasive. The Physiological Society has conducted a national survey in the vein of the seminal work of Holmes and Rahe in 1967[1] to ascertain how different stressful events, both positive and negative, affect people. In partnership with polling firm YouGov,[2] we surveyed over 2000 British adults and asked them to rate how stressful they find (or imagine they would find) 18 different life events. The results suggest some enlightening conclusions.

The overall ordering of the stressor events is given here, along with an average score (out of ten points) assigned to each one.

Rank Event Stress /10
1 Death of spouse/relative/friend 9.43
2 Imprisonment 9.15
3 Flood/fire damaging your home 8.89
4 Being seriously ill 8.52
5 Being fired 8.47
6 Separation/divorce 8.47
7 Identity theft 8.16
8 Unexpected money problems 7.39
9 Starting a new job 6.54
10 Planning a wedding 6.51
11 Arrival of first child 6.06
12 Commute delays 5.94
13 Terrorist threats 5.84
14 Losing smartphone 5.79
15 Moving to bigger house 5.77
16 Brexit 4.23
17 Going on holiday 3.99
18 Promotion/success at work 3.78

Perhaps most interestingly, for every single event, the reported stress experienced by men was lower than that by women. The average difference was 0.56 points. The biggest difference was in the stress caused by the threat of terrorism, which was 1.25 points higher for women. The smallest difference was for the arrival of a first child – a life-changing event for either sex! Of course, we cannot tell from these figures if the women responding do experience greater stress, or are simply more willing to report it; an age-old problem of this type of research.

Overall regional differences were small, with the average stress level across Great Britain varying only by 0.28 points. The most stressed area was Scotland, while the least stressed was the South East of England. The East of England was notably upset by delays in their commutes, while Londoners were most sanguine about going on holiday.

The results for some events point towards stress levels increasing with age, most strongly for long-term problems such as illness or imprisonment. Exceptions to this trend were the loss of a smartphone, which fits with the added difficulties this would cause to highly-connected younger generations, and the arrival of a first child. This was rated highest by those 25-34, who are likely to be the group experiencing this most recently.

One interesting stressor was Brexit (with the given definition of “the process of leaving the European Union”). Though ranking low among all the stressors, Brexit had the greatest variety of responses given, shown by the highest standard deviation. Respondents aged 18-24 scored Brexit stress a point higher on average than those 55+. Those living in London and Scotland also scored Brexit a point higher on average than Wales and much of the rest of England. Most markedly, those respondents educated to higher degree level reported stress two points higher than people with only GCSEs or A-Levels, while undergraduate degree-holders were also more stressed, though more than a point lower than those with higher degrees. These trends correlate with the constituencies of the electorate most likely to vote Remain in the referendum, suggesting they are finding the Brexit process stressful while leavers are happier to let things play out.

Participants were also asked to fill in any other particularly stressful events which they felt the survey had missed out. The most common responses concerned driving: car breakdowns, suffering traffic, road rage, or being the passenger of a careless driver all featured. Another set of common response described caring responsibilities for aged, ill or disabled people.

Finally, to the person who responded: “Trying to enter an amateur radio contest when the ionospheric conditions are poor due to a coronal mass ejection, coupled with a neighbour’s plasma TV causing major interference on the 1.8 to 7 MHz bands.” All we can say is, we feel your pain.

[1] T Holmes and R Rahe, Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Vol. 11, pp. 213 to 218. Pergamon Press. 1967

[2] All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2078 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 28th December 2016.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

The Society leads learned societies’ input to TEF development

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

The Physiological Society has worked on higher education policy for many years. The key issue in this area is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), designed to improve teaching quality and give students more information when selecting their course.

The TEF is being developed in iterations, with attention focused at the moment on how to split its assessment down to subject level. The Department for Education (DfE) is developing this with input from many sector representatives, including Universities UK (UUK).

The Society convened a meeting with UUK and representatives from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society of Biology, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Statistical Society and the Institute of Physics. This gave the opportunity for a wide range of views from the STEM sector to be aired and ideas for the future TEF to be discussed in detail.

The first phase of discussion covered the operation of the current institutional-level TEF. This is the first version of TEF to base its awards on metrics, covering the areas of teaching quality, learning environment, and student outcomes. There is general acceptance that these high level themes are appropriate, but much less satisfaction with the specific metrics chosen within them. The benchmarking process to set institutional targets is also contentious. The metrics are supplemented by a written submission, but it is acknowledged that the main element of the result is the metric scores. Exceed enough benchmarks and a gold award is given; fall below enough and you rate bronze. Given this is the case, there is a disturbing lack of trust in the National Student Survey and its reporting on student satisfaction. Similarly, the Destination of Leavers from HE (DLHE) survey only gives a snapshot six months after graduation, at which point many graduates have not yet entered their careers or made significant decisions.

The Society has long focused on the reward and recognition of teaching in HE. All participants agreed that the TEF as it stands does not touch on the status of teaching within universities, even though a good way to increase teaching quality would be to encourage and reward those staff members who focus on teaching. The trend in reality is towards increasing casualisation of teaching, including the use of zero-hours contracts and other non-permanent arrangements for teaching. A better appreciation of teaching staff by the TEF would be likely to help it achieve its original goals.

The conversation then moved on to proposals to increase the specificity of the TEF, moving to subject-level assessment. Current plans envision a blend of subject- and institution-level factors being combined to produce an overall score. Awards may potentially be given to institutions and departments separately. It is proving difficult to define the correct scale to identify a “subject”. Proposals exist for a TEF which combines certain schools and courses into units of assessment, but these may not be universally accepted. An alternative under consideration is an assessment of how much departments deviate (above or below) from the overall quality rating of the entire institution. The model used by Athena SWAN for department and institutional awards was discussed and is being evaluated.

The participants considered the meeting to be very successful, and the UUK representatives were pleased to receive a different viewpoint to that from the heads of institutions. The Society hopes to convene this group again and continue working to make the TEF as effective as possible.

If you have any comments or would like further detail, please contact policy@physoc.org.

Diversity at The Physiological Society – with a focus on our scientific events

As we have highlighted previously, The Physiological Society was one of the first signatories to the Science Council’s Declaration on Diversity. We welcomed this initiative and the recognition that there is room to improve the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in all areas of science – including at our own Society.

The Society has taken its commitment to this Declaration seriously.  Under the guidance of our Diversity Champions, we have made some significant improvements to our knowledge and practices – made possible by the engagement of staff, members and Trustees, and the support of the Science Council and its networks.

Our work began with surveys of the staff and membership.  With the results used in conjunction with retrospective analyses and benchmarking studies, we have made the following changes and improvements since 2015 (note the list is not exhaustive):

  • Unconscious Bias training available to all staff, Council and Committee members.
  • Unconscious Bias workshop for members at our main conference
  • Mandatory targets of 25 % and aspirational targets of 33% for female speakers in all symposia and Departmental Seminar Schemes
  • Early Career Networking events

Signing the Declaration has catalysed a review of The Society’s activities from a different perspective; whilst we didn’t previously consider ourselves to be exclusive in any way, we are now aware that others may have considered us so. To address this, we intend to review each of our specific activities for their level of ‘inclusivity’, and to promote positive actions through regular  updates to our website and via email to the membership when needed.

Ensuring access to our scientific events is a critically important Diversity, Equality and Inclusion consideration for us. Physically bringing together hundreds of people to progress the discipline of physiology is a challenging and complex task, but The Society is keen to enable everyone to attend. To a greater or lesser extent, every physiologist will have a different requirement to facilitate and enhance their engagement at a scientific meeting (such as Physiology 2016). Some steps that we have taken to ensure that you feel welcome and able to engage have been listed below:

  • Funding available for those with caring responsibilities (For more information and how to apply, please email events@physoc.org)
  • Free guest registration
  • Rooms for breastfeeding mothers
  • Child care facilities, where possible and practical
  • Early career networking events
  • Catering for specialist diets
  • Prayer facilities
  • Live streaming of key lectures, available free of charge

Barriers and obstacles can be diverse, and sometimes hidden, but we are keen to address these wherever possible. So, whilst we take every step to ensure attendance and engagement is possible, we always welcome feedback for improvements and allowances. Please contact events@physoc.org to discuss any specific needs that you might have.

 

 

 

Changes to Freedom of Information

An independent commission, led by Lord Burns, is working to update the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Society has responded to the consultation for views on aspects of Freedom of Information with respect to information around the use of animals in research. This is a complicated area governed by UK and EU law which the commission is seeking to simplify. Our response, which can be read here, makes clear the need to limit the administrative burden placed on institutions carrying out research involving the use of animals, and the protection required for detailed proposals of research which carry scientific and commercial confidentiality risks.