Commentary / Events

Voice of the Future: Young Scientists Invade Parliament

This is a guest post by Catherine Holden. Catherine is a PhD student in the School of Chemistry.

On my way to Voice of the Future I had to ask a policeman for directions and arrived at Portcullis House feeling like a tourist, an impression which was confirmed by the airport style security.

After a much needed cup of tea I took my seat at the panel and the role of Science and Technology Committee explained to us. It is a cross party body of MPs attempt to ensure that policy is based on good scientific advice through conducting extensive enquiries into any aspect of science, engineering, technology or research related to Government.

Today, the questions would be posed by young scientists from various learned societies, but with a slight difference. Normally the witnesses speak under Parliamentary privilege and cannot be prosecuted for anything they say. Unfortunately this would not apply today and so we couldn’t expect our witnesses to be quite so candid, especially as the proceedings were being televised by the BBC.

The session was opened by self-proclaimed non-scientist John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons) who, in his own words, a “warm up act” for the important witnesses to be called before our Committee. His welcome had the intended effect and finally I started to feel at home amongst my fellow scientists.

Sir Mark Walport (Chief Scientific Advisor), our first witness, gave thought provoking answers about the five discussion topics: Science in Government, Equality and Diversity, Science Education and Careers, Research and Innovation, and Public Engagement/Science. An interesting point was that there is a lack of public understanding concerning concepts of risk. This contributes to the misunderstanding of hazards related science policies such as the nuclear power program. He also provided an insight into his job providing information to Government, who then use the science as one of many lenses with which to view policy decisions.

The tables had turned in second panel are the witnesses were the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee themselves. Through the insightful questioning we heard about how the Committee works to inform MPs, who sometimes struggle to understand the basic scientific principles behind the matters which are debated, and how engagement with the scientific community has improved under Andrew Miller’s leadership.

Last year this panel published a report on women in scientific careers. One of the conclusions was that nothing had changed in the ten years since the previous report, and not enough was being done to actively improve the situation. I wanted to know whether the MPs thought this was the responsibility of Government or universities and businesses, and so was thrilled when my question was put to them.

The Committee had also been shocked by their findings and unsurprisingly believed that everyone has the responsibility to affect change. Sarah Newton MP also expressed a desire to revisit the issue after the general election, with the aim of making Athena SWAN status a condition of government funding. Whereas Pamela Nash MP was more concerned by impact funding cuts had made on progress and wants to redress the balance in the next government.

This panel was certainly the most interesting and it was easy to see how, despite their political differences, some of the most effective politics is achieved on these collegiate boards rather than through adversarial debates.

In contrast the next witness, Liam Bryne (Shadow Minister for Business, Innovations and Skills) was understandably critical of the current governments approach to scientific research. In true opposition style, he promised to ring fence research funding and achieve a budget at 3% of GDP, if his party was elected to power in May.

Our final witness was Greg Clark (Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities). He contested that science had been at the centre of government decision making and presented to us that the recent Science and Innovation Strategy set stability for the next ten years. The inspiring morning unfortunately finished on a low note when the final question, concerning the EU referendum and how this will affect the ability of young researchers to work and study abroad, was evaded with rhetoric about whether “things can be better than they are now”.

Of course the aim is always to improve and as such the session was overwhelmingly positive. We were strongly encouraged to engage with our local MPs on a personal level to ensure that the scientific message pierces through the cacophony of opinions which confront politicians in their daily business. You, young scientist, must be the voice of the future.

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