Voice of the Future 2017: young scientists question MPs and Ministers

By Dr Andrew Quigley, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Oxford

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Dr Andrew Quigley representing the Biochemical Society at Voice of the Future event . Photo: Royal Society of Biology

“Voice of the Future is a very unusual event” says Dr Stephen Benn, Director of Parliamentary Affairs at the Royal Society of Biology.  There is no event quite like it anywhere else in Parliament, possibly the world.  How often do young representatives of professional bodies get the opportunity to sit in for a Parliamentary Committee and question MPs about science policy issues that matter to them?  But that is exactly the chance that I and 50 other young scientists and engineers were given.It may not be the Palace of Westminster, but Portcullis House (just across the road) is an imposing building in its own right with a modern interpretation of Gothic style, a bright, airy atrium akin to  a glasshouse and walls lined with portraits of statesmen and women from the past and present.  The building houses offices for many MPs as well as Committee rooms that include the Boothroyd room where our meeting was held.

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Photo: Royal Society of Biology

Voice of the Future 2017 was screened on Parliamentary TV and organised by the Royal Society of Biology, with this year’s event set to be a fascinating, all action occasion given last year’s political shockwaves.  Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation was first in the hot seat.  She praised the success of equality and diversity initiatives such as Athena SWAN and suggested that changing the formula by which regional investment is made could help bridge the UK regional funding gap.  Professor Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser followed; he emphasised the importance of Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics (STEAM), which incorporates the Arts into the STEM approach and answered questions on the creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as well as how the Government should prepare for the ethical challenges associated with emerging genetic technologies[1]

Unsurprisingly Brexit was the subject of a number of questions.  Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, was questioned on the environmental impact of leaving the European Union, how major funding programmes would be affected and what advantages there could be for the scientific community.

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Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (left to right): Dr Tania Mathias MP, Stephen Metcalfe MP, Matt Warman MP and Carol Monaghan MP. Photo: Royal Society of Biology

The final session put questions to members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.  The panel included the Chair of the Committee Stephen Metcalfe MP, alongside Dr Tania Mathias MP, Carol Monaghan MP and Matt Warman MP.  It was interesting to hear responses from the panel and there was a general consensus over the issues affecting research in the UK.  The panel was also keen to encourage engagement between politicians, the research community and the general public.  Tania Mathias MP gave an example of how a group of school children contacted her and this led to a change in policy over the inclusion of microbeads in products. As a scientist working for the Structural Genomics Consortium, a strong proponent of open-science and innovation, and industrial collaboration, I was keen to hear what the Government’s strategy was on commercialisation of research and had the opportunity to ask Jo Johnson MP.  The Minister responded by stressing the importance of expanding the body of human knowledge as a justification for research in its own right before describing how the government is keen to promote innovation though UKRI and the new Industrial Strategy Challenge fund.  One of the key parts of the Industrial Strategy is to encourage greater information flow between the research base and larger companies to help business interact with ideas developed by researchers but also to allow the research base to have a greater understanding of the needs of businesses.

I really enjoyed my day in Westminster, which gave me an insight into the work of Ministers, Government Advisors and a cross-party Committee.  It was great to hear such a range of questions as well as the responses from MPs. The day showed me how important it is that we all get involved in policy and work together with MPs to develop policies that work for the science community.  Next time you have a burning question about an aspect of scientific policy, contact your local MP or apply to be a participant in next year’s Voice of the Future. Maybe, just maybe, that could lead to a change in how we all do research in the future.

[1] This question came from another Biochemical Society representative, Hannah Sutcliffe from the University of Edinburgh.

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