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Parliamentary Links Day 2017

Parliamentary Links Day brings together scientists, learned societies and member of parliament annually at Portcullis House in Westminster. The theme of this year's event was 'UK Science and Global Opportunities'. The BSI's intern, Julia Deathridge, reports on highlights of last week's events. 


Parliamentary Links Day is the biggest science policy event in the parliamentary calendar, bringing together scientists, learned societies and members of parliament under one roof to discuss the future of UK science. A prestigious set of speakers, assembled by the Royal Society of Biology, addressed a packed room at Portcullis House talking around the theme of this year’s event ‘UK Science and Global Opportunities’.

The speaker of the house Rt Hon John Bercow MP started off the event, followed by keynote talks from the minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson MP, and Sir John Kingman, chair designate of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The morning ended with two panel sessions on ‘Science and Europe’ and ‘Science and the World’, both chaired by BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh.

The UK is world leading in terms of science, and plans to increase R&D spending, a manifesto pledge of all main political parties, shows that politicians have recognised the important role science will play in the future of the UK. However, during his keynote speech Jo Johnson discussed the need to address gaps in R&D spending and encourage the geographic spread of investment across the UK. He also emphasized the importance of improving commercial development of research, stating that the UK is falling behind in comparison to other countries.

The launch of UKRI in April 2018 is designed to help deliver a more strategic approach to science spending with more of a focus on interdisciplinary collaborations between different disciplines. Both Kingman and Johnson stressed that sensible regulated spending by UKRI will help provide confidence in the Treasury, which will in turn encourage continued investment in the science sector.   

Unsurprisingly Brexit and the future of UK science outside the EU was a frequently visited topic throughout the day. Jo Johnson acknowledged the need for the UK to remain as the ‘go to place for innovators, researchers and investors’, adding that ‘these kinds of conversations will be ever more important as we navigate Brexit’. He went on to announce plans to underwrite the funding of the Joint European Torus, Europe’s largest fusion experiment, which is based here in the UK, until at least 2020. He said this commitment to underwrite the facility post-Brexit was indicative of the Government’s intent in maintaining the UK’s research links with Europe. 

Concerns over the future of EU academics residing in the UK and the free movement of people were raised on multiple occasions during the first panel session. Labour MP Chi Onwurah stated that EU academics need reassurance about their status in the UK and uncertainty around their future is driving talent away. This point was reiterated by representatives from the Italian and Spanish embassies, Prof Roberto di Lauro and Dr Lorenzo Melchor, who expressed concerns over the high proportion of Italian and Spanish scientists considering leaving the UK post-Brexit.

During the second panel session Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, reminded us that it is ‘important to show that the UK is open for business’. She adds that, ‘academics have a huge soft power network with rest of world - keep it up and educate politicians’. Prof Sir John Holman, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, expressed the important role that learned societies will play in maintaining international collaborations, especially post-Brexit. Engaging with policy makers during Brexit negotiation will help achieve the best outcome for science.

The talent pipeline and the need to inspire the scientists of the future became a prominent topic of the second panel discussion. The demand for science teachers, both at primary and secondary levels, is reaching a critical point and more specialist teachers with a scientific background are needed. Jocelyn Bell Burnell ended the panel session by encouraging all scientists in the room to go into schools and inspire future generations about STEM careers.

Closing remarks by Stephen Metcalfe MP summarised the morning reminding us all that, ‘we are leaving the EU, not Europe’. If negotiations are handled correctly and parliament, scientists and societies work collaboratively, together we can help build a future for UK science within Europe and the rest of the world. 

Julia Deathridge, BSI Intern

To find out more about how leaving the EU could impact science and immunology visit our Brexit Briefcase

Image credit: Royal Society of Biology. See more photos of the day on Flickr