Guest post by Jenny Ward, 3rd year PhD student, Imperial College London, UK.
In our ever more scientific and technologically advanced world, the Government is constantly forming policies that relate to scientific issues that affect our lives. From our health and education, to the environment and data security, these policies affect us as citizens and as scientists. But how do these policies come into being, and are they based on evidence?
It is all too easy to be cynical about the democratic process, an attitude often not helped by the depiction of politics in the media, which is why events which provide direct interaction with government are so valuable. Voice of the Future was such an event, providing a unique opportunity for young scientists and engineers to engage in the democratic process and question MPs on scientific issues important to them. Held in parliament, the event resembled a select committee meeting, but this time the scientists were in the committee seats and the MPs were answering the questions! Voice of the Future is organised by the Society of Biology on behalf of the science community. I was one of the Biochemical Society’s representatives at the event.
The event got off to a flying start, being opened by a charismatic Rt Hon John Bercow MP, speaker of the House of Commons. The morning was split into four sessions with representatives from different science and engineering societies and schools putting their questions to the panel of witnesses. Topics discussed included the use of science in government, equality and diversity, research and innovation, education, and public engagement.
Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, was the first witness of the day and answered questions on issues including the use of scientific evidence in policy making. He draw on examples such as the recent Ebola outbreak and flooding control.. The second session, in which I was lucky enough to represent the Biochemical Society, saw the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee in the witness seats. Made up of MPs, the Committee’s role is to scrutinise government policy relating to science and technology and ensure that such policy is based on good scientific advice. It was great to see this cross party Committee engage with, and have an obvious inquisitiveness for, scientific issues on which I feel strongly. There were several thought-provoking questions, including how we ensure UK science remains internationally competitive, and the role of business and university partnerships in achieving this. When asked what politicians do to engage with and educate themselves about science Andrew Miller MP, the chair of the committee, reflected the question back and highlighted the importance of scientists actively engaging with politicians. As MPs represent the interests of their constituents, it is the constituents that prioritise the concerns they actively pursue in parliament.
The remaining sessions saw Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, Liam Byrne MP, answering questions regarding the proposed spending targets for research and development, as well as the merit and limitations of crowd sourced funding for science. Finally, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP responded to queries including how long term policy priorities, such as climate change, are sustained beyond a single Parliament.
All in all it was a fantastic event and left me with a clearer picture of how science is used in government as well as a sharpened interest in engaging with policy making not only as a scientist, but as a scientific citizen. The take home message for me was that, rather than passively asking what our politicians are doing to educate themselves about the science that affects policy, the science community should think how to actively convey the importance of science in order to contribute to policies that shape our society.
If there’s an aspect of science that you feel strongly about write to your MP and make sure you voice your opinion. I’m certainly going to get more involved!