Young scientists put questions to MPs in parliament

8 March 2016

Young scientists had the chance to quiz politicians at a science policy event in parliament on 1 March that saw a video message from Tim Peake on the International Space Station as well as appearances by universities and science minister Jo Johnson and MPs from across the political spectrum.

Young scientists put questions to MPs in parliament
Credit: Royal Society of Biology

The annual event, Voice of the Future, is organised by the Royal Society of Biology with support from the IOP and several other learned societies. It enables PhD students, postdocs and other young researchers to turn the tables on MPs by having them appear as witnesses in a debate on science issues.

Politicians taking part this year included members of the Science and Technology Select Committee, its chair Nicola Blackwood, and shadow science and consumer affairs minister Yvonne Fovargue.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, also appeared as a witness, while the IOP’s nominees for putting questions at the session were Jessica Wade, a PhD student at Imperial College, London; Sebastian Wood, from the National Physical Laboratory; Joe Spencer, a postgraduate research student at the University of Southampton; and James Kneller, a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London.

During questions to Sir Mark, Wade (pictured) asked how officials should meet the challenge of political timescales being short while answers to questions in research could take decades or even generations to emerge. Using the example of climate change, Sir Mark agreed that politicians were having to juggle with the long-term and sometimes competing factors of energy security, sustainability and affordability, but noted that human beings in general were not good at thinking about problems that might play out over generations.

Wood asked the select committee members how we could increase the science capital of the younger generation when we were not able to recruit or retain enough specialist science and maths teachers. Blackwood said that in an inquiry by the committee only a third of the ICT teachers questioned had a relevant qualification and only half felt confident in teaching the new computing curriculum, and in physics and maths the problem was worse.

Committee member Carol Monaghan, a former physics teacher, said the issue was wider within teaching and it was not helped when derogatory comments were made about the profession. She also felt that scientific thinking should infuse the whole curriculum. Committee member Valerie Vaz said teachers were not sufficiently valued and she thought the IOP had usefully highlighted the need to retain people in science, particularly women or men with caring responsibilities who wanted to return after a career break. She also thought there should be “golden hand-cuffs” for science teachers.  Her committee colleague Tania Mathias highlighted the importance of small-scale local efforts to engage school students through visits from scientists.

An IOP report that showed that almost half of mixed comprehensive schools had no girls progressing to A-level physics was highlighted by Blackwood, in answer to a question on redressing the gender balance at the higher levels of science.

Kneller asked Johnson whether the government should provide more incentives for people to go into STEM careers. Johnson said that as well as supporting a number of schemes, the government was making more money available to universities providing high-cost courses, often in STEM subjects, “because we recognise the societal benefits that having a STEM-educated workforce provides”.

Kneller also asked Fovargue how far moves towards equal childcare responsibility would help to address women’s under-representation in STEM, and pay inequality. Fovargue said this would help, but she also believed that the difficulty of taking career breaks, perceptions of the sciences and teaching styles and priorities could also be deterring girls.

Halfway through the session, participants heard a recording from Tim Peake, orbiting 400 km above the Earth, in what is believed to be a first for parliament. He highlighted the UK’s success in space science and technology and said that for it to continue, we needed to create opportunities for growth and to inspire the younger generation to gain the skills that they needed for exciting careers in the sector. His time on the ISS was paving the way for future missions beyond Earth’s orbit and eventually to Mars, he said, probably not for him but for those studying science and technology today.