Last week I was lucky enough to go to London and be part of the Royal Society of Biology’s Voice of the Future Event. It is an opportunity for young scientists and engineers to ask MPs about science policy matters which they feel passionate about.
We were not quite in the Houses of Parliament but the more modern Portcullis house. There were four sessions with Chi Onwurah (Shadow MP for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation), Sir Mark Walport (Government Chief Scientific Advisor), Jo Johnson (Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) and some of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Not everyone was able to directly ask a question to the MPs (me included) but there were many common themes which came up repeatedly.
Of course it wouldn’t be politics at the moment without many Brexit questions! One key question for me was asked by the British Ecological Society (BES) concerning the loss of EU regulations after Brexit. The response from Chi Onwurah suggested that EU regulations would be retained but encouraged scientists to champion new legislation. Other questions raised concerns about the potential loss of scientists and funding following Brexit. This highlights the need for guarantees for EU scientists, rather than promises and niceties from politicians. Whether this will come soon who knows?!
Women in Science
This is one area I am very passionate about so luckily there were lots of questions about supporting women in science, from education of girls to supporting women in more senior roles. The issue of ‘Pinkification’ came up more than once – when girls are given pink, gender specific toys which promote gender stereotypes. Luckily my childhood was more Lego and gardening than princesses and pink but it is the start girls being put off studying STEM subjects. Later questions focussed on retaining women in science and plugging the so called ‘leaky pipeline’. This was best addressed by the Science and Technology select committee. They highlighted several issues – short term contracts, the lack of 9-5 working or job-shares, which all prevent some women from feeling they can have a scientific career and a family life. The need for a societal change and shake up of how science jobs work were suggested but I think this will remain an issue for some time.
The perennial issue in science is funding – money is always needed for science to happen. The merging of existing scientific research councils into one large funding body – UK Research and Innovation was a hot topic. Sir Mark Walport cautiously suggested that the new funding body would be a good move as long as it is ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ and produces more interdisciplinary research. The mismatch between funding timescales and research time scales was also brought up a couple of times. We were encouraged to continuously show value to society and the economy in order to receive funding. I’m not sure this is always possible, especially during long term studies in areas such as ecology!
Promoting education in science is always a hot topic. With the current ‘Post-Truth’ attitude to experts such as scientists, the Science and Technology Select Committee suggested that more critical thinking education was needed in schools, to better equip the public about the issue of ‘fake news’. I got the feeling this was welcomed by all the scientists in the room. When it came to inspiring children to get into science we were encouraged to get involved with more outreach and school visits – I’m just not sure everyone will be able to commit a huge amount of time on top of their existing commitments!
In all it was a very interesting and thought provoking day. It showed me the other side of the table and the impact that scientists can have on policy. I would definitely get involved in more policy events – the chance to influence MPs with evidence based science is something I would love to do more of. And I now have the badge to prove it!
For more info about these issues
Check out Franciska de Vries blog about being a women in soil science – https://franciskadevries.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/soil-science-a-mans-world/#more-414
A great short and to the point article about pinkification – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/05/girls-aisle-sexist-toys-clothes