Young scientists quiz MPs as event turns the tables on politicians in parliament
20 March 2017
Questions about science funding, Brexit, evidence-based policy in a “post-truth” world and protecting high-cost university courses were among those put by young researchers to politicians in an event that turned parliamentary procedure on its head and made MPs subject to examination as witnesses in a committee-style setting.
The now-annual Voice of the Future event in Westminster on 15 March saw PhD students, postdocs and other early-career scientists in the seats normally occupied by MPs on the science and technology select committee asking questions of politicians including Jo Johnson, minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation, and Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation.
Also being quizzed were the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport and a panel of four MPs on the select committee including its chair Stephen Metcalfe, Conservative members Dr Tania Matthias and Matt Warman, and SNP member Carol Monaghan.
The event was organised by the Royal Society of Biology with the support of several learned societies that nominated early–career scientists to take part, including the IOP. Appearing as nominees from the IOP were Tom Rivlin, a PhD student at University College London (UCL), Ben Fernando, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, Jade Li, a physics undergraduate at UCL and Benjamin Cowan, an undergraduate at the Open University.
Questioning Johnson, Cowan asked how we could protect the future of lab-based subjects such as physics and chemistry that were important but often more expensive to teach. Johnson said that it was one of the government’s priorities to protect high-cost subjects. Responding to a related question from a Royal Academy of Engineering nominee, he said: “We are very committed to ensuring that it is the government that is directly subsidising high-cost subjects, not students in other subjects. We don’t expect teaching to cross-subsidise research.”
Johnson was also asked why the government continued to “include international students in the immigration cap”. In reply, he said: “The reality is that there’s no limit on the number of international students who can come and study in the UK. There is no plan within government to impose a cap and no limit to the number who can switch into work on graduating provided that they get a graduate job with a registered sponsoring employer.”
In answer to questions about Brexit in relation to funding and to future collaborations with European partners, he said the government was providing an additional £4.7 bn in R&D spending between now and 2020/21 and the government had made it clear that “we value our European research partnerships and collaborative structures, and want to continue to ensure these remain productive in years to come.”
During questions to Onwurah, Rivlin said the government was promoting apprenticeships but many jobs still ruled out those who had taken a non-academic route and asked what could be done about this. Onwurah said that cultural change took a long time but the government’s role was to set out very clearly where we want to be. Labour had said all apprenticeships should be at A-level standard or above by 2018. While the new proposed T-levels could be helpful, she said, it was also important for businesses and institutions to be open about how many of their staff had come up through non-academic routes.
Answering a question on increasing the representation of women in science, she expressed her strong support for the Athena SWAN initiative and the IOP’s Project Juno, and said she hoped everyone present would devote part of their time to inspiring people from all backgrounds, particularly girls, to go into science and to “trashing the pinkification of girlhood”.
Asked how the UK could ensure that it remained a world-leader in STEM, she said that it was obvious that we were punching hugely above our weight in science. “I fear that that’s one of those things that we will only really value when we lose it,” she said, adding that we should make it clear that the UK valued people of talent from all over the world.
Responding to a question about the science policy of the Trump administration, she said: “My big concern is that the Trump administration’s science policy does not seem to be a science policy. We need to be clear that science is based on the accumulation of provable facts. We need to be clear that we’re not going to change the meaning of science for one man.”
Among the questions put to Walport was one on the merger of the UK research councils and Innovate UK. How would it affect the funding and delivery of novel research and was there a danger that some areas of research would be overlooked? Walport, who is chief executive designate of the new merged body, UK Research and Innovation, said some research areas were overlooked in the current system. “The goal is that through having a central strategic brain we can make a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.” The test of its success would be whether the system as a whole was working more effectively, how well it understood the whole research landscape and whether it could support vital interdisciplinary work.
The panel of four MPs who are on the select committee were asked what they thought of the government’s plans for the development of spaceports in the UK and all were supportive, especially Monaghan, who said four of the potential sites were in Scotland. Each of them also agreed that there was a need for a chief scientific adviser in the Department for Exiting the EU.
They were also asked: “In what many are calling a ‘post-truth’ world, how can politicians work with scientists to earn the trust of the public and convince them that experts are useful?” Metcalfe, a Conservative member, said: “We are in danger of overstating the extent to which the public has abandoned the advice of experts. My sense is that there’s still a huge amount of trust in science and scientists. Experts still have a huge and important role to play and we must support them wherever possible.”
A nominee from the Society for Chemical Industry asked what should be done to prevent a brain drain in UK science, particularly of early-career scientists, post-Brexit. Metcalfe said this was something that the select committee had flagged many times. Its call for scientists and researchers to be made exempt from any immigration process had not yet been met and he hoped this would be addressed shortly after Article 50 had been triggered, to provide reassurances to those already here and to send out the right signals to others. “We have had very warm reassuring words, but until we get action, it is just that – warm words.”
Monaghan said: “The brain drain is already happening and without cast iron guarantees it is going to continue happening. These reassurances are not penetrating. The guarantees have to come now to prevent any further damage.”
Warman suggested that there should be ways to encourage global free movement of scientists, for example for those who had a PhD. Matthias said that as a committee they had produced a unanimous report about making such movement easier. In talking to those potentially affected, they had discovered that everyone they met actually had the right to remain but did not realise it, she said.
Li was the IOP nominee for the panel session. After the sessions were over, Rivlin said: “It was a fantastic opportunity and I am very grateful to everyone who allowed me to get involved.” Fernando, who was the IOP representative during questions to Walport, said: “It was good to hear all the politicians talking about their different takes on things, but it would have been good to have been able to grill them a bit.”
A recording of the event is now available.