The Young Academy was invited by the Society of Biology to attend VOICE OF THE FUTURE 2013. This event, held at the House of Commons, represented a unique opportunity for young scientists and engineers to participate in a Science Question Time with Members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology, the Minister of Science, the Shadow Minister of Science and the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.
Mirela Delibegovic and Lisa DeBruine represented the Young Academy at this meeting and compiled the following account of this event.
The session was brought to order by the chair, Xameerah Malik, and participants were told that the entire session would be broadcast live (ow.ly/jfwmz) and also encouraged to live Tweet using the hashtag #VOF2013 (twitter.com/search?q=VOF2013). Lisa tweeted using her own Twitter account (@lisadebruine) some during the session and gained a number of followers from UK science societies. We recommended that representing members get access to the YAS Twitter account during similar activities in order to facilitate links between the YAS and other groups.
All questions were written and available to all panelists and audience members. Individuals were assigned to specific questions, not necessarily a question that they personally submitted. In each session, a representative from each organisation was seated at the MP’s seats. The member was changed for each session; the RSE-YA was represented by Mirela for sessions 1 and 2 and by Lisa for sessions 3 and 4.
Other represented organisations included:
British Pharmacological Society
Council for Mathematical Sciences
Institute of Physics
Royal Academy of Engineering
Royal Astronomical Society
Royal Society of Chemistry
Society for Applied Microbiology
Society of Biology
Society for Endocrinology
Society for Experimental Biology
Society for General Microbiology
Queens Park Community School
Prendergast Hilly Fields College
Sir John Beddington CMG FRS FRSE, Government Chief Scientific Advisor
Sir Beddington was asked a number of questions about the role of science in government and future science policy. Several questions revolved around Sir Beddington’s idea of “the prefect storm” of how food security, energy, population and climate change interact on a global scale. Sir Beddington emphasized the role of science in researching these issues and informing public policy.
Sir Beddington also spoke about the role of science in the recent “horse meat” scandals. He explained how his role as Chief Science Advisor informed the debate and emphasized that the scientific experts he consulted found no evidence of a public health threat, so that the issue remained mainly one of fraud.
Mirela was assigned one question in this session: “From a scientific point of view, what would you say is the greatest challenge facing the international community at present? What plans are in place to alleviate this?”
Sir Beddington said that the number 1 challenge is Poverty. There are currently 8 billion people on this planet and increasing; number 2 would be Climate Change; number 3 Microbial diseases (e.g. antibiotic resistance) and number 4 being the Energy Crisis. It is not something that a solution can be found at a national level but that they are working globally together to address these challenges. Previously, there had been a failure to connect agriculture with climate change and greenhouse gases but that is now more accepted and recognized.
In addition, there was an important question in regards to policy decisions and making these publicly available; Sir Bedddington pointed out that the government is keen and good at transparency and the Forsyth reports are published and available for public scrutiny. They/he was also giving about 120 public lectures/year. There was also emphasis to make things jargon free.
The Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Andrew Miller, gave a brief explanation about what the committee does.
Some questions to the committee revolved around issues of science in a global setting, such as “What would be the impact on UK science if we were to leave the European Union?” Committee members uniformly thought this would not be a positive move for UK science. Moreover they stated that it would be disruptive to science programmes; political side should not interfere with good science and best science is brought about by collaborations. There was also talk of trying to get UK into the European community to drive scientific issues.
Other questions concerned links between academic scientists and industry, such as “The movement of trained personnel is one of the most effective mechanisms for knowledge transfer. How can the academic scientific community, industry and policymakers work together to improve mobility between academia and industry for graduate students and early career professionals?”
Lisa was assigned one question in this session: “Currently, new investigator grants for new lecturer compete for the same pot of money as project and programme grants put in by well established, senior scientists. How is UK science to remain internationally competitive if funding for young, early career researchers is not ring-fenced?” Lisa did not submit this question and notes that it is factually inaccurate; the UK funding councils have MANY programmes for postdoctoral or early-career researchers. However, Willetts responded that he thinks it is only right that the best ideas get the most funding and that the competition for grant funding is right to not take career seniority into account.
One of the main questions revolved around the role of women in science and lack of women in senior positions; it was pointed out that only 19% of the UK’s workforce in STEM are female. There was recognition that this is a problem in other sectors as well and the introduction of “all women short lists” by the labour party. They were forced into positive discrimination due to inability to increase numbers of women in politics. There was also strong emphasis on Mentoring of women by other senior women academics.