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Parliamentary Links Day 2022

On Tuesday 28 June 2022, the BSI attended this year’s Parliamentary Links Day, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Biology (RSB). Held in the Houses of Parliament, it aims to bring together and build links between parliamentarians and policymakers and those in the scientific community. This year’s theme was ‘science and international collaboration’ and featured discussions around Horizon Europe. The BSI had a strong presence at the morning session including our current President Professor Arne Akbar, our President-Elect Professor Tracy Hussell, BSI Trustee Professor Deborah Dunn-Walters and BSI Immunology and COVID-19 Taskforce member, Dr Ruth Payne.

The event featured an array of speakers from across the political spectrum and beyond. The event was opened by Rt Hon Dame Eleanor Laing MP (Con, Epping Forest), who welcomed attendees back to Parliament in person, followed by Stephen Metcalfe MP (Con, South Basildon and East Thurrock) who chairs the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. Speaking from opposite sides of the same brief were Chi Onwurah MP (Lab, Newcastle upon Tyne Central), Shadow Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation and George Freeman MP (Con, North Norfolk) who served as Science and Research Minister until July 2022.

 

Horizon Europe

Ms Onwurah began by telling the audience that she and the Minister mostly agreed on most of the issues and reaffirmed Labour’s support for the UK’s inclusion in the Horizon Europe programme. She went on to say that our chances of association to Horizon were being hindered by the Government’s approach to the resolution of the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol. She said that a Labour government would renegotiate rather than take a unilateral approach like the Government, but was scant on the details of how that renegotiation would be achieved.

Mr Freeman had his right of reply later in the morning and told us that association to Horizon Europe would be the Government’s first choice, but that he and his department had been working around the clock to create a Plan B option in the event that association didn’t happen. Plan B would include three strands: a stabilisation fund to support current research being financed by European grants; a budget for international collaboration with scientists from around the world; and an innovation fund that would support partnerships with industry and help to drive private sector investment in all regions of the country as part of the Government’s levelling up agenda. He said that his priority would be funding UK-based scientists who had already lost EU funding, such as ERC grant holders, from day one of the programme.

It should be noted here that the political upheaval we experienced in early July 2022 has placed a number of caveats on the timetable that Mr Freeman set out. He had said that the Government would be looking to make a decision on whether Horizon association was still a realistic proposition by the beginning of Parliament’s summer recess on 22 July and begin Plan B should it not be. The resignation of the Prime Minister as Leader of the Conservative Party means that the EU now has less of an incentive to settle the dispute on the Northern Ireland protocol ahead of somebody new entering Downing Street, somebody whom they may find more amenable to a deal. This puts the brakes on any progress being made on Horizon association, while the caretaker government that is in office but not necessarily in power, for the rest of the summer may not wish to make a policy decision on whether to opt for Plan B. At the time of writing the post of Science Minister remained vacant.

 

Amplifying the voice of immunology

The morning also saw a panel discussion from a number of scientific leaders including Royal Society of Chemistry President, Professor Tom Welton OBE, and Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Dame Jane Francis. This session allowed audience participation including contributions from our President, Professor Arne Akbar; and President-Elect, Professor Tracy Hussell. Professor Hussell asked about the possibility of whether people working on smaller studies could join in some of the large-scale collaborations going on, such as seen in immunology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Later, Professor Akbar spoke to the panel about the need to support older scientists who are approaching retirement or who have taken emeritus status and ensure that learned societies and societies at large have opportunities for them to engage and continue to make a contribution. Earlier on, BSI Chief Executive Dr Doug Brown had been selected to ask a question to the Science Minister about whether the voice of science in Parliament is loud enough and how we as learned societies can amplify that voice so it is heard by policymakers. To which the Minister replied that the voice of science can always be louder, and scientists should not be afraid to speak up; a mantra that we will take to heart in continuing our advocacy work.

The voice of science can always be louder, and scientists should not be afraid to speak up.

The event was a huge success in bringing parliamentarians and the scientific community closer together and we look forward to next year.

 

Matthew Gibbard
Policy & Public Affairs Manager, British Society for Immunology


You can download a final programme and watch the event on the RSB YouTube channel.