The day began with introductions by Stephen Benn from the Society of Biology and the Speaker from the House of Commons. In groups of young people from a range of learned societies, institutes and schools, we then interviewed MPs in 4 sessions, chaired by Victoria Charlton. The organisations represented ranged from the Royal Astronomical Society to the Society for General Microbiology, the Council for Mathematical Sciences to the New Engineering Foundation, so the “STEM subjects” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) were well represented and the breadth of questions asked reflected our diversity.
When not working on her PhD project, hiking in the peak District or getting involved with science policy, Angie enjoys communicating the wonders of science to the public.
First up was Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor since April 2013. He gave succinct, assured answers to questions about the media, equality, international policy and evidence-based policy. We also asked Sir Mark about his own career and he gave the sage advice (from his PhD supervisor) that careers cannot be planned – you need to take opportunities as they arise.
The second session saw us interviewing a panel of Members of Parliament from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, a collegiate, tri-partisan committee chaired by Andrew Miller MP. The aim of this Select Committee is to examine pertinent issues to ensure good, evidence-based policy on issues relating to science and technology. The panel gave independent answers: honest dissent was welcomed, and two members of the committee expressed strong opinions – one against nuclear energy and another for homeopathic medicine – which went against the general feeling of the committee. The areas covered by our questions to the panel ranged from education and public engagement, to energy policy and genetic modification. The Committee’s current inquiry on GM foods is underway and if you’d like to submit evidence for this you can do so until 23rd April at this web address. We even posed the question “what single major scientific discovery would you hope to see in your lifetime?” which brought forth a range of imaginative responses including instant diagnostic tools for medicine, deep space exploration, room temperature superconductivity, understandings of antibiotic resistance and the origins of disease, and the successful management of the planet’s resources.
Thirdly, we interviewed Liam Byrne MP, the Shadow Minister for Universities and Science. Liam gave confident, clear answers to our questions on the impact of Scottish independence on science, the need for better provision of Master’s degree funding, and the importance of think tanks. He outlined his three proposed shifts for science policy: moving from short term to long term research funding, increasing the role of science in the UK’s regional economy, and growing the UK’s share of global Research and Development spending.
Our final witness was David Willetts MP, the Minister for Universities and Science, who was critical of our questions – perhaps for good reason! He discussed the importance of encouraging people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to attend university, the need for more girls to study STEM subjects, recently-launched UK doctoral training centres, and the balance between applied and blue-skies research, as well as the UK’s role in space science.
Overarching themes of the day were education, government involvement in STEM careers, and the importance of evidence-based science policy. The depth of the thought-provoking questions posed reflected the impressive maturity of the young attendees. Andrew Miller MP gave this advice for influence: take the responsibility of making sure your MP knows what you are doing in STEM and why it is important (particularly useful for PhD students but applicable to all). Hopefully we’ll have given the witnesses some food for thought, and the young people invited to the event will feel encouraged to get more involved and engaged with science policy.
The event may be viewed online here.
By Angie White
Follow Angie on Twitter @AngelaClaireW
Angie is a PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield.