Dr Jim Geach, an early-career researcher from the University of Hertfordshire and Royal Society University Research Fellow, shares his experience of attending this year’s Voice of the Future event, an annual parliamentary event arranged by the Society of Biology.
Politics and science have always been inexorably linked. One only has to look at the first years of the Royal Society to confirm this observation; arguably, the Society would not have established itself the way it did without the approval and support of Charles II. Today, with science firmly embedded in every aspect of our lives, the need for scientists of all levels to become involved in the democratic process is greater than ever.
On 4 March, the Society of Biology held its ‘Voice of the Future’ (VoF) event, hosted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee at Portcullis House. This event allows early career scientists to ‘turn the tables’, providing an opportunity to pose questions of concern to young researchers directly to senior members of Parliament in the form of a select committee hearing. As a Royal Society University Research Fellow, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate as one of the Royal Society’s delegation, and was asked to submit a number of questions in advance that could potentially be posed on the day.
Although I have never really been directly involved in politics, I have always had a keen interest in the democratic mechanism in general, and try my best to keep abreast of the latest goings-on in Westminster, especially when science policy is being debated or when key funding decisions are made. After all, our ability to actually conduct research now and in the future depends on the perception of the importance of science to politicians (and the public). Of course this perception has consequences for government-level decisions to invest in basic research. It has always been clear to me that, rather than complain about lack of science funding from a sedentary position, it is vital for scientists to actively seek to champion the importance of science as force for good in our society. The opportunity to contribute to VoF was therefore a no-brainer for me.
Over a series of four sessions, the witness chairs were occupied by: Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Science Advisor, Andrew Miller MP and members of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister for Universities and Science, and Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities. I sat in the ‘horseshoe’ for the first session, with Mark Walport, and although I didn’t get a chance to ask my own question directly, questions similar to mine were asked. What I really wanted to know was what the strategy was for bringing UK investment in science as a fraction of GDP (the UK is now under 0.5%) up to the same level, or better, than the OECD average! Nevertheless, across a fascinating morning, discussions ranged from the importance of social sciences in the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa to strategies for attaining an even gender balance in STEM subjects. You can hear all the discussions by watching a video of the event on the Commons Science and Technology Committee website.
Now having actually sat in the horseshoe, being involved at a high level in the conversation between politicians and scientists doesn’t seem like such a far-off thing. I came away from the day with a distinct feeling of optimism that politicians actually do want the input of scientists – especially early career ones – when it comes to policy making. For me, I think this was the most valuable outcome of the event: each of us has a voice, and if we want to make a difference we must make our voices heard.