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Young Academy member questions MPs at Voices of the Future

Siobhán O’Connor, a lecturer from the School of Health and Social Care at Edinburgh Napier University, represented the Young Academy of Scotland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh recently at Voices of the Future 2018. This event offered young research leaders the opportunity to discuss the future of science policy in the UK with senior political figures at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

The annual platform is organised by the Royal Society of Biology and provides early careers researchers with insights and influence into the policy translation process. They get to voice their questions and discuss burning scientific policy issues with key political figures. On 13th March 2018, the Voices of the Future event was held at Portcullis House and streamed live on Parliament TV. It will be broadcast live on BBC Parliament on Saturday 17th March 2018 at 18:00. This provided Siobhán and other young research leaders from across the UK the chance to delve into the complexities of key science policy issues.

The group were welcomed by Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons before Sam Gyimah MP, the newly appointed Minister for State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, began the first session. Numerous questions were posed to him by the young scientists such as whether childhood vaccinations should be compulsory to attend school and the impact of Brexit on the movement of research staff and funding. Siobhán had the privilege to quiz the minister on the underrepresentation of women in science, in spite of the increasing uptake of STEMM subjects by girls at school. To the question, “How can we fix this ‘leaky pipeline’ and ensure that women not only have role models in science but equal representation at all levels?” he responded that the statistics are disappointing as only 51% of women that have a STEMM degree go on to pursue a STEMM career. He emphasised that attracting and retaining the best talent was essential to the UK economy and that the government’s industrial strategy was taking steps to address the lack of female participation in science through the UK Research and Innovation Council who run programmes aimed at increasing diversity in the STEMM workforce.

The second session panel was led by Chi Onwurah MP, the Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. She responded to a number of questions on the proliferation of fake science via social media, how to improve career progression for early careers academics and what the government can do to better react to and regulate emerging technologies such as AI algorithms, robotics and genomics among others. For the third session a number of MPs from the Science & Technology Committee, including Carol Monaghan from Glasgow North West, Stephen Metcalfe from South Basildon and East Thurrock, and Martin Whitfield from East Lothian, fielded a range of questions. This round covered key areas such as how to ensure creativity and diversity in science education from pre-school to postgraduate levels, why scientists should become MPs and how best to capitalise on Big Data and artificial intelligence while protecting personal data and citizens’ rights.

The final panel was overseen by Dr Rupert Lewis who leads the Government Office for Science, which supports thegovernment’s Chief Scientific Adviser. Siobhán contributed to the line of questioning by asking, “How is science policy coordinated across the UK, given the existence of devolved administrations?”. Dr Lewis explained that ministers and Chief Scientists across the UK discuss key issues on a regular basis to ensure a coordinated response and a common set of infrastructures are in place to enable excellent science collaboration. Getting to experience the inner workings of Parliament and speaking to key decision makers will enable the young scientific leaders who participated in Voices of the Future 2018 to develop their professional careers and ensure they know how to influence science policy.

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Sharon is a Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health at Glasgow Caledonian University, and works in association with Health Protection Scotland to develop surveillance on blood-borne viruses. She manages a broad translational research programme, which is both methodological and applied and spans activities including infectious disease modelling, record-linkage studies and evaluation of public health interventions.

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