Over 200 researchers, parliamentarians, and learned society members attended Parliamentary Links Day, one of the biggest and longest-running science events in the Parliamentary calendar. Organised by the Royal Society of Biology, it is designed to link parliamentarians with researchers to discuss the future of UK science. This year’s theme was ‘Science and new frontiers’. The BSI had a strong presence including Prof Arne Akbar, Prof Ann Ager and Dr Edith Hessel from our Board of Trustees, and Dr Laura Pallett and Fane Mensah, Early Career Representatives from our Forum.
Dr Stephen Benn (Royal Society of Biology) opened the event and introduced the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, who welcomed everyone. Mr. Speaker spoke of the importance of good teachers inspiring young people into STEM careers, and the necessity of maintaining international collaborations post-Brexit.
Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, delivered the first keynote address, describing politics and science as ‘the twin engines of human progress’. As a Chartered Engineer, Ms. Onwurah has experience of the diversity issues in STEM. She joked that parliament was “the most diverse” place she had ever worked, and suggested that short term contracts for early career researchers were one of the structural barriers that prevented those with caring responsibilities from reaching their full potential. She pointed out that 20% of the UK workforce are in science roles, and they enjoy wages 40% above average. The Shadow Minister was keen to ensure that the benefits of science and technology are accessible for all of society.
The first panel session, chaired by Stephen Metcalfe MP (Chair of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee), focused on where the new frontiers of science are. Panel members included Dr Richard Amos (Institute of Physics), Professor Emma Bunce (Royal Astronomical Society), Professor Philip Calder (The Nutrition Society), Professor Sanjeev Gupta (Geological Society), and Professor Molly Stevens (Royal Society of Chemistry). They had three minutes to introduce themselves before the floor was opened to questions. The panel were asked questions ranging from how to boost manufacturing interest and potential in the UK to whether our current education systems adequately provide the interdisciplinary skills needed for future scientific careers. The importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary working were key factors highlighted throughout discussions.
Rt Hon Sir Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology, then delivered his keynote. He condemned the rise of populism offering “easy solutions to complex problems” and emphasised the necessity of engaging with scientists for rational policy making. Sir Norman described his Committee’s purpose in advising and scrutinising government policy. In line with previous speakers, he spoke on the importance of maintaining international collaborations in the face of Brexit and the UK remaining part of Horizon Europe. Sir Norman encouraged the audience to invite Committee members to visit their work to learn more about the cutting-edge research taking place in our universities and research institutes. He also encouraged participation in ‘My Science Inquiry’, an open invitation for the public to come forward with ideas for the Committee to investigate.
Policies for success
The second panel session on policies for success was chaired by Carol Monaghan MP, a member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Panel members included Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology), William Hardie (Royal Society of Edinburgh), Dr Sarah Main (Campaign for Science and Engineering), Professor Stephen Harridge (The Physiological Society), and Sharon Todd (Society of Chemical Industry).
Our own CEO, Doug Brown, asked what practices the panel would put in place to attract and retain talent in industry and academia in order to reach the Government’s stated aim of increasing investment in R&D to 2.4% GDP by 2027.
Mr. Hardie said it was important to promote early STEM exposure in the education system. Ms. Monaghan interjected that early “pigeon-holing” of children of different genders was problematic and asked if it was possible for academia to implement more flexible working arrangements such as job sharing. She emphasised that retention, particularly of those starting a family, required more support from employers and funders.
Fane Mensah, the BSI Forum’s Early Career Representative, asked how do we regulate automation, digitalisation and big data to engineer biology. Dr Hill-Cawthorne said that an ethical framework required knowledge of the end use of the information. Dr Main said the UK has a reputation of being able to handle complex issues. She thinks its important to be able to respond and evolve in an agile way as new technologies are developed. The panel were also asked how to better enthuse the public with the process of science rather than just the headlines. All agreed there was a public admiration for scientists, but more can be done in both education and public engagement to reach out to diverse audiences.
Boosting research investment
The final keynote speech was by Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities,
Science, Research and Innovation. He described 2019 as a year of extreme stress and challenge for the scientific community, citing Brexit, immigration post-freedom of movement, and the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). He emphasised the need to do all we can to maintain EU collaborations and participation in Horizon Europe post-Brexit. The Minister discussed his thoughts on the impact of Brexit on the scientific community and said he hoped that we could achieve “freedom of talent” to retain the UK’s international research community. He then went on to discuss what the UK needs to do to reach the Government’s stated target of increasing investment in R&D to 2.4% GDP by 2027.
The Minister then took questions from the audience including on any commitment received from the candidates for PM on science and Brexit, how delay to the CSR would affect the ability to the reach the 2.4% GDP target and on how to encourage more people to study STEM.
It was encouraging to hear renewed promises to increase GDP investment in R&D and that the voice of the scientific community has been heard on the implications of Brexit. Other overarching themes from the morning’s event included the importance of diversity and inclusion in science, how to prepare for increasingly multidisciplinary science, and the importance of maintaining international collaborations after Brexit. The BSI made its mark with two questions in the panel session and our Forum Chair Ann Ager connected with her local MP to discuss science funding. The event was a huge success in bringing parliamentarians and the scientific community closer together and we look forward to next year.
Intern, British Society for Immunology