Scientists seize chance to quiz MPs on policy

20 March 2014

Early career researchers and school students had the chance to turn the tables on politicians when they grilled MPs at the Voice of the Future 2014 event in parliament yesterday.

MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee who are used to questioning expert witnesses instead faced questions about science policy from early career scientists put forward by a number of learned societies, including the IOP.

Also facing questions were universities and science minister David Willetts, and shadow minister for universities, science and skills Liam Byrne, as well as the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport.

One of the IOP’s nominees asked Byrne whether grants and student loans should be available for master’s and PhD students. Agreeing that they should, Byrne said he had been struck by how many students saw this as a priority and felt that they had to have more than an undergraduate degree to compete in the labour market. Having employed someone who had been turned down by two major banks for a career development loan, he felt that such decisions should not be in the hands of banks, and was looking at whether postgraduates could be brought into the student loans system.

Responding to questions about Scottish independence, he argued that it would be a “catastrophe” for Scottish science and Scottish universities, as they lost funding advantages in the UK and access to European funding while the country applied for EU membership. He also said that this year we would miss our national quota for physics teachers “by a mile” and claimed that the School Direct scheme was partly to blame for this. Labour believed that we should rebuild the careers service, improve vocational routes and rapidly increase “earn while you learn” degrees.

Willetts told a questioner that there was no policy to shift funding away from fundamental science, but to encourage researchers to think about the potential implications of their work. The Square Kilometre Array, for example, would have spin-offs in computer science though this had not been the purpose of the research.

Asked what could be done to encourage more people from lower socio-economic groups into science, he said that despite anxieties about the poorest students being deterred by tuition fees, applicants to universities from this group had doubled in the last decade. However, they still made up only 20% of applicants, compared to 60% from affluent backgrounds, which showed that there was more to be done.

Willetts also said that the UK had become expert in manufacturing small satellites, producing half of the world’s supply. Despite having no launch facility of its own, the UK had turned this to its advantage by specialising in lightweight satellites.

The IOP nominee also asked a question on the long-established Haldane Principle, which holds that government ministers should not try to direct science funding allocations or “pick winners” in research. He asked MPs what was left of this principle after the government’s recent channelling of funds to a graphene centre and to specific universities. The select committee’s chairman, Andrew Miller, said that there were bound to be some strategic priorities in the light of the fantastic research being conducted in some areas, of which graphene was a good example. This was not technically a breach of the Haldane Principle, he said, but he hoped the government would listen to advice before it rushed into trying to pick winners.

The MPs were also asked how the government could ensure that the UK had the technology and knowledge base to expand nuclear power. There was some division of opinion, but those who favoured expansion agreed that it could not be done by trying to suddenly “turn on the taps” and instead needed long-term investment in the sector’s skills base.

Questions discussed by Sir Mark Walport included how to improve the employment situation of postdocs on short-term contracts and the nature of evidence-based policymaking.

The event was held to coincide with National Science and Engineering Week.

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