Voice of the Future 2016

We scientists like to complain- we work too hard, our labs are too cold, our families don’t understand us, the politicians don’t understand us. Today the government are trying to show us that we’ve got it wrong. As a young scientist I was invited by the IOP to ask political figures at the Houses of Parliament about scientific policy. After reading and re-reading the six page briefing I somehow managed to miss the ‘there is no cloakroom’ bullet point and was frog-marched back to my office by a well-prepped Seb.

Members of various scientific institutes and academies (including me and Seb!) submitted   questions to parliament, which were then vetted and formalised by the scientific and technology committee. All we had to do was arrive at parliament- we didn’t even need to remember our questions- then find out if our questions would be asked. The day was made up of four panels, including; the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (Sir Mark Walport), the Select Committee on Science and Technology, the Minister for Universities and Science (Jo Johnson) and the Shadow Minister for Science (Yvonne Fovargue).

I was assigned Seb’s question, which was about triple the length of my question and about real-life grown up science policy rather than just how to engage young people. So I spent the first twenty minutes freaking out that I’d mess up by the first comma and not relaxing into my comfy chair around the horseshoe. Sir Walport chaired my panel, former director of the Wellcome Trust and head of medicine at Imperial. We had a short briefing, where we were told that if we were badly behaved we’d be removed from the room and that if we said anything that could be interpreted as libel we would be held responsible, then the games began. A rather savvy representative from the Institute for Chemical Engineers asked “What the point of the whole afternoon was? Would our questions begin discussions elsewhere?” and the answer was a rather political ‘no’- this was an engagement activity- but don’t lose faith yet, I was impressed by how engaged these politicians were. We were addressed by the Rt Hon John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, who was overwhelmingly supportive of both the activity and the chair, Stephen Benn, Director of Parliamentary Affairs for the Society of Biology. “There are people who have good ideas, who think of them, then forget them- and there are people like Benn, who have ideas and are ineffaceable and efficient at translating through to execution”. Benn’s “passion” for science is why we’re all here this afternoon. John Bercow’s commitment to the attracting young minds to scientific careers is one that is close to his own heart- his twelve-year-old son is sitting a science exam today. He leaves our meeting telling us to ‘develop, nurture, hone and caress our passion for science’. Pretty sure he’s never made a perovskite solar cell!

Sir Walport answers every question with a ‘trilemma’- a three-part, well thought out, cleverly constructed answer addressing both the individuals in the room and the country as a whole. It’s difficult to know where scientists stand. The government receive an awful lot of advice from experts in industry, academia, economics- and then have to decide which lens they look through to write policy: what they know about a certain issue, how it can be delivered and what their values are. My (/Seb’s!) question,

“Policymaking and scientific research often take place on different timescales. Much policy is made over a five-year political cycle, but answers to questions in science can take decades or generations. How should officials take account of such differing timescales and the associated changes when setting policy?” was essentially: “We try”. They know infrastructure (‘roads’) lasts for a very long time, and have to look beyond their political lifespan. Whilst he acknowledges that humans are very compassionate for their grandchildren but less so for their grandchildren’s grandchildren, issues like climate change are everybody’s responsibility (and again being solved with another trilemma).

He’s either very well read-up or much more savvy about scientific research than I expected. He knows more than most tenured academics: not all science is good science. The incremental advances we make over the course of our PhDs are (unsurprisingly) not super important to the people running this country- they’re more interested in the review paper. He agrees that scientific publications have gone a bit crazy and that it’s up to us as scientists to make it something we value. We need to be aware of the differences between negative results (some polymers just make rubbish solar cells) and failure (most of the time Jess just makes rubbish solar cells) and understand the differences between quality and quantity of scientific publication. A PhD or a fellowship should be judged on the scientific quality not the scientific quantity- it’s about what you discover not how much you’ve published. Open-access journals opens a whole new can of science worms- are we essentially paying to publish? To maximize the impact of research is it essential to maximize ‘spread’? Apparently the government are quite keen for more scientists to be more represented in parliament: we “can’t blame those that do stand (for election), only those that don’t stand”. They’ve created a fast track civil service scheme for scientists and engineers. Walport is a wise guy, acknowledging that science has become too vocational and we have to stop thinking that exiting academia is ‘leaving science’. Finishing a post doc to become a policy maker is not a sign of failure.

“There are too many scientists who are worried politicians don’t care, and too many non-scientist politicians who are worried all science policy goes over their heads”.

Having never made much time for politics in my life, I surprised myself by enjoying Panel 2 even more. Panel 2 was chaired by Nicola Blackwood and her (majority female) political colleagues.  At the moment the S&T committee are looking into space science, digital skills and EU regulations. Their inquiries have resulted in pretty interesting findings, from how profitable the space industry is (it makes four-times more than any other industry for the UK) to how under qualified our school computer science teachers are (35 % have the appropriate skills, 50 % feel they can’t cope with the new curriculum) and whilst they are all representing different political parties they seem to get on incredibly well. To try and connect with scientists they’re going for the classic parliamentary trilemma: to increase access to science policy for fellow politicians, increase access for scientists and to increase access to the broader public.

After a pathetic showing of hands to the question, “How many of you have actually tried to visit your local MP?”, we’re called to task: if we’re upset about something, it’s our responsibility to shout about it. If you’re considering pitching to your local MP: check your facts, triangulate your data and don’t fetishize your science: you are no more important than your neighbor.

“We should pay teachers as much as we pay footballers”. FYI: my question- “How can we increase the science capital of the next generation when we aren’t able to recruit/ retain enough specialist science and maths teachers?” is well received but impossible to answer honestly. The committee recognize that retaining teachers is incredibly difficult. People never went into careers like science (or medicine for that matter) to make money, they did it to give something back, and to make them feel more supported we need to change the environments in which these people work. Phrases like “those who can do, those who can’t teach” are poisonous- the teaching profession has to be recognized for their phenomenal efforts. The select committee are particularly keen on little pockets of public engagement enthusiasm- ranging from NPL sending rocket challenges into nearby schools to local champion inventors, the Big Bang fair, STEM Ambassadors and Your Life. Whilst I’m all for a bit of ‘STEM fun’, I’m not sure about the long-term impact of these schemes: will attending a science fair or hearing from a visiting postgrad for 30 minutes at lunchtime change your A-Level choices?

“When there are 20 % women in a room, men think it’s 50:50, when there are 33 %, men think it’s mainly women”. Tomorrow, the S&T committee are pressing the government to provide a roadmap of private and public investment into scientific research and R&D, permitting fundamental science to live-on: every single scientific discovery makes sense of the world, whether it’s backed by a corporate giant or not. Today they’re quizzed on gender balance in STEM and reveal they’ve read (and were shocked by!) the IOP’s Girls in Physics/ Improving Gender Balance studies. Dr. Mathias (MP for Twickenham) is proud of NPL’s gender balanced apprenticeship scheme, and says women need to help each other in moving up the ladder. She doesn’t think she’d have gotten anywhere without her female colleagues- but I’m not convinced: a SPGS and Oxford graduate, this lady was always going to go far. The S&T committee think men need to help and become part of the conversation: “all of us will benefit if we can make this right”.

When asked about the role of European Union membership in UK science and engineering research they point to the CaSE report, where 93 % of all UK Higher Education Intitutions agreeing that EU membership benefits UK science and engineering research. The UK receive more EU grants than any other country and, in the situation of a Brexit, would severely suffer in the recruitment of able European scientists.

It turns out that before Voice of the Future, the S&T committee took a government school-trip to CERN, and have come back super enthusiastic about massive/expensive scientific experiments. After Panel Two we were disrupted by someone 400 km away- well, 400 km above our heads. Tim Peake recorded the first ever message to parliament from space- and gave the first evidence from zero gravity. Tim Peake is doing some pretty cool medical research in space, trying to understand the impact of long-term space flight on human health and earth-based problems like asthma.

The final two panels build on previous questions; emphasizing the need for an increase in STEM skills amongst the younger generation. Akin to his fellow politicians, Jo Johnson thinks this will be achieved through ambassadors, science fairs and work experience, but also by establishing a national network of supportive teacher hubs. Yvonne Fovargue is the Shadow Minister for Science and is on the defensive. She talks about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), whereby the government monitor and assess the quality of teaching in England’s universities. She’s starts her round pretty cynical- the TEF it can’t become like the Research Excellence Framework (REF), where you’re just assessed on the number of publications- and she’s worried about who would make a fair judge. Unfairly she says the majority of women lose interest in STEM due to peer pressure ‘and boys’- where as I think I gained my interest in STEM due to ‘peer pressure and boys’- supported by my friends/ colleagues in my all-male research group, I took my scientific studies much further than I ever intended too aged eighteen. The final message from Fovargue is similar to the findings of the IOP, IET and RAEng: we need earlier interventions of strategic STEM careers advice and a robust work experience scheme open to all (not just those with high science capital).

I went through a pretty extreme range of emotions this afternoon: nervous before meeting Seb, frustrated I’d misread the instruction manual, excited we’d be part of something so exciting, desperate to become a politician, not quite sure I could hack it, incredibly thirsty, incredibly hungry and just content. I was so honored to be invited it wouldn’t have really mattered how the afternoon played out- but I really enjoyed being part of the discussion, whatever the purpose of it was.

Check out the link on Parliament.Tv (14:19:00) http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/e489c2c9-e967-4ab6-9af0-bfc6167a3c08

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