By Gabriele Butkute, Science Policy Officer at the Biochemical Society and the Royal Society of Biology
What world do we want to live in in 30 years time? What values do we want the society to live by? How will science and engineering affect our life going forward and what is the role that they should play? These are among the questions that were asked during the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) 30th anniversary celebrations on Monday 14th November. The event looked ahead at the role of science and engineering over the next 30 years and discussed what we can do now to make the future that we want a reality.
It was great to see the first panel of the evening cover such diverse areas and provide an interdisciplinary angle: Prof Jonathan Haskel, Imperial College London; Dr Adam Kucharski, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Prof Lynn Rothschild, Brown University, USA; Phil Smith, Chairman of Cisco UK and Ireland and Katie Ward, author of ‘Girl Reading’.
The panel discussed the challenges that different areas of science are facing and how to tackle them. Kurcharski, who works on infectious diseases, shared his views on how social science is essential when dealing with the major outbreaks, such as Ebola. For example, when trialling the Ebola vaccine, is it fair to give it to only half of the population at risk in order to compare them to the ones that weren’t given the vaccine? Is it denying treatment or just good evidence based research practice?
When Katie Ward asked her Twitter followers what they would like science to do for them in the next few decades, people asked for things like, tackling climate change, creating new antibiotics and a cure for cancer. But then they also wanted to be able to do time travel and teleportation (the latter was apparently very popular), so no pressure!
The second half of the evening was chaired by Prof Jim Al-Khalili in conversation with Prof Brian Cox and Jo Johnson MP, who discussed school education, Brexit, immigration, the importance of international collaborations and Boaty Mc Boatface – a ship naming exercise that involved over 120,000 members of the general public. How to engage the general public in science was a question debated by both of the panels. It was great to hear from Professor Brian Cox OBE, Advanced Fellow of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester, Jo Johnson MP, Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister and Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey, on how they get involved with local schools and other public engagement programmes. Prof Cox highlighted the value of non-commercial television, such as BBC, for producing science programmes and this way making science more accessible and inclusive.
The discussions were bound to touch on the US presidential election and Brexit – sources of great uncertainty for most of us. On one hand, there are lots of people in the scientific community saying that we failed to engage the general public, we failed to show them the value of science and engineering, of collaboration and EU networks. And that might well be true. In response to that, both Prof Cox and Jo Johnson MP said that science and expertise wasn’t disrespected in the EU referendum because it simply wasn’t on the ballot.
A lot of ideas where thrown around during the evening. I found it particularly interesting to hear Prof Cox say that education is an international security issue and lack of it may continue to lead to the election of radical governments around the world, which could put us at risk.
Jo Johnson MP said that while he meets many prominent scientists as a part of his job, doing homework with his children and looking at their textbooks is rather uninspiring – there is a bit disconnect between the two and he’d like to see that gap closing. Maybe education should be about training people in scientific thinking, teaching people about acquiring knowledge and how exciting that is.
While the topics discussed that evening were delicate, the discussion was candid. The diversity of the panellists was excellent and helped contribute to the quality of the content, as well as making all of us think for a second where we imagine the science sector will be in 30 years. For example, what kind of relationship the UK will have with the EU, how will we ensure that our science community is diverse and inclusive and how will we engage the general public in science.
CaSE is hosting a series of 30 blog posts to discuss the roles of science and engineering in the UK’s future.
All photos courtesy of CaSE/Anna Gordon.