By Mélanie D Panagi, PhD Student, University of Bristol
It’s not every day that you get to ask an MP a question. It’s not every day that you are filmed live on Parliamentary TV. But it happened. It happened to me and about 40 other young scientists from across the country. We were invited as part of the Voice of the Future event, organised by the Royal Society of Biology, to sit on a panel together with politicians and put forward science policy issues that were important to us.
Arriving through the doors at Portcullis House, Houses of Parliament, opposite the illustrious Big Ben, was like walking into a greenhouse: the glass vaulted ceiling and trees lining the atrium, made it feel more like a building at Kew. Definitely not the stuffy old building I imagined we’d be in. Climbing the central staircase and into the waiting room felt pretty nerve-wracking. It seemed bizarre to me that I, a simple PhD student, could be here in the same room as our MPs, the people that make the decisions that affect all our lives.
We were lucky enough to have the meeting opened by the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Right Honourable John Bercow MP. First up was Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser. The variety of questions was fascinating, ranging from antimicrobial resistance, to publishing negative data, to the timescales of policy making. Then it was the turn of the Science and Technology Select Committee, chaired by my hometown MP, Nicola Blackwood. I was surprised, and pleased, to see how many women were on the panel. And naturally the question of gender imbalance in science was a prominent subject of discussion. Then, unsurprisingly, the subject of the EU came up. As a staunch pro-EU voter (being half French, half Cypriot), I was relieved to hear that the consensus was that science is better with Europe. But it has to be noted that they don’t all agree.
Time for the exciting bit: Tim Peake made an appearance! The Committee had organised for him to answer a couple of questions, recorded the week before. It was pretty amazing to have someone, 400km up and spinning around the Earth every 92 minutes, be part of a panel you’re also involved in.
The day continued with Jo Johnson MP, the Minister for Universities and Science. He really engaged with the questions and gave honest, concise answers. And then it was my turn to sit at the horseshoe table. I was right at the top, next to the chair, with a great view of the room. Suddenly I felt quite important. This final session was for Yvonne Fovargue MP, the Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills. I asked her about non-EEA nationals applying for residence in the UK. From April 1st, you will need to earn over £35,000, a salary which few post-doctoral scientists reach. She agreed that through this legislation we have been losing many highly qualified individuals and hoped that continued pressure on government from learned societies will help. The penultimate question of the day came from a member of the Royal Society. He asked whether a background in STEM is necessary for a MP to make an informed decision about science policy. I had always thought that being a scientist would always be better. Yvonne’s background is in English, and quite rightly, she said that policy is based on evidence, not your own knowledge so already the question is moot. But she consolidated her point by saying that not studying science can be an advantage as it does not bias you towards certain disciplines. I found this extremely interesting and I admit that she made me reconsider my view on the matter.
Taking part in Voice of the Future event was a really enlightening experience, not only in terms of the questions that were asked, but also being able to learn more about how policy is dictated and the array of people involved. I’ve always been a politically-minded individual and if I ever decide to leave research, science policy is most definitely something I’m going to look into.