In the first Panel, we asked Sir Mark Walport (Government Chief Scientific Adviser) whether it was right for scientists to feel constantly pressured to publish papers to advance their careers – surely this distorts research towards positive, high-impact results? "A negative experiment is not a failed experiment - it tells you something you didn't know, even if it is that your hypothesis was wrong" Sir Walport reminded us. The issue of Open Access publishing was also raised - can this radically new approach really work over the long-term? Sir Walport thought so, stating that "the already successful Open Access journals show that this is an economic model that can work. Someone is still paying, but now the cost of publishing becomes one of the costs of the research, just like a centrifuge."
Following this, we enjoyed a lively debate with a range of representatives from the Science and Technology Committee. The alarming lack of qualified STEM teachers was a particular concern, with Nicola Blackwood (MP for Oxford West and Abington) stating: “The skills gap has reached a crisis point - for instance, there is worrying evidence that only 35% of ICT teachers have a relevant qualification". Besides missing STEM teachers, we also wanted to know where are all the women in the higher tiers of academia and industry? Clearly, more needs to be done to make a scientific career and motherhood compatible. Meanwhile, could a split from the EU put British Science Institutions in jeopardy? After all, the UK currently receives the highest proportion of European Research Council funding (22%). Whilst some felt that "the excellence of our institutions will keep collaboration resilient", others weren't so confident. "We don't want our scientists to be left outside, looking in on projects to cure cancer, develop new energy technologies, etc." said Stella Creasy (MP for Walthamstow).
We then had a break in the more formal proceedings to receive a very special message, recorded specially for us from the International Space Station. British astronaut (and new celebrity!) Tim Peake sent us his greetings and described some of his own recent scientific experiments on the accelerating ageing effects of space travel. Although his voyage has been hailed as an inspiration to the British public, he imagines a more audacious future still. “In the not too distant future, human space travel will become as routine as commercial aviation is today” he assured us.
My nerves kicked in as the third panel started as it would soon be time for me to pose my question. Fortunately, I maintained my composure and was able to look Jo Johnson, (Minister of State for Universities and Science, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) in the eye and ask “If Global Warming is as bad as the worst-case scenarios predict, how will this current Government justify itself?” Unfazed, Mr Johnson reminded us of the UK’s critical contribution in the Paris Climate Talks of December 2015 and pointed out that over the last Parliament, carbon emissions had dropped by 18%, the largest decrease ever in a single Parliament. I suppose that only time will tell as to whether our actions now will be enough to avoid the worst damage possible – and by then, it’s likely that a different set of MPs than those before us today will be in office.
In the final panel, societal issues were the theme of our discussion with Shadow Minister Yvonne Fovargue. When asked what should be done to prompt more girls to take up maths and physics degrees, she argued that encouragement must come at a much earlier stage. As to the proposed “sugar tax”, she argued that “Raising the cost of food for people isn’t going to solve the obesity problem”, particularly as so much of our sugar intake is hidden in processed foods. Instead, the government should adopt an educational approach that “makes people understand the value of healthy eating”.
Throughout the day, we were encouraged to get involved and consider a future in Parliament and policy making. "People keep asking why there are so many MPs without science degrees" said Sir Mark Walport. "And at the end of the day, it's because they stood for election". But even if you don't want to try and make it as an MP, being active at a local level can be effective. reminded us that even. "Do not underestimate the power of your local MP" Dr Tania Mathias (MP for Twickenham) reminded us. "If you can pitch an idea and explain it to me, I can take it to the back benches". Nevertheless, as we all departed for our various destinations, I couldn’t help but feel that more than a few of the delegates would return to Portcullis House one day...
To see the official recording of Voice of the Future 2016, click here.
Voices of the Future is open to students who are members of over 15 participating learned societies, including the Royal Society of Biology, the Biochemical Society, The Institute of Physics and the Geological Society. To find out more visit this webpage.
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student at the University of Sheffield and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/
All photos by Royal Society of Biology