Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day

29 June 2018

Easing immigration rules for scientists hoping to work in the UK and having more ambitious targets for spending on R&D were major themes at this year’s Parliamentary Links Day on 26 June.

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

The event, held annually in Westminster to bring the STEM community and parliamentarians together, focused on the Government’s new Industrial Strategy and heard from distinguished speakers and panellists including the IOP’s President-Elect, Jonathan Flint (pictured above, centre).

Organised by the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) on behalf of the science and engineering community, including the IOP, and now in its 30th year, the event attracted more than 250 people. It was opened by the Speaker, John Bercow, and the Prime Minister sent a message of welcome via Stephen Metcalfe MP.

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

The first keynote speaker, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy Chi Onwurah (left), welcomed the commitment in the strategy to increase R&D spending as a proportion of GDP to 2.4% by 2027 with a long-term target of 3% but said we should aim higher. Labour would invest in scientific excellence across the country, increasing spending by £1bn in is first two years in office and raising public and private spending on R&D to 3% of GDP by 2030, she said.

It was also important to bring together the best talent from across the world to collaborate on science and innovation, she said, but many EU immigrants now felt isolated and uncertainty over Brexit was having a negative effect on recruitment, she argued, while diversity within the STEM community was still to be realised. “I believe science needs to be part of our cultural DNA. I believe pure science is part of what makes us human but it’s also important to set out the economic value of science and engineering in the UK. We punch far above our weight but I want us to go further – that’s how science will continue to be an engine of progress for our country.”

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Dr Patrick Vallance (left), told the audience at Portcullis House that in a recent survey, 72% of people said science impacts on their daily life “We are all users of science on a regular basis,” he said. “Politicians and others need a language to frame the problems that science can address – not to tell scientists how to answer the problem but to be very clear about what the problem is.”

Scientific advice had to be based on evidence that was rigorous – “we can’t just pick the bits that we like” he said – it had to be accessible and it had to minimise bias while making clear the assumptions on which it was based.

In a panel discussion chaired by BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, the Industrial Strategy was welcomed by Jonathan Flint, who commended its emphasis on improving infrastructure, on access to skilled people from around the world and on making the UK the best place to do innovative business, but said “we do also need frictionless access to markets”.

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

The SNP’s Carol Monaghan MP (left) also welcomed the strategy but said there was not enough detail on increasing diversity or on attracting researchers from the EU and elsewhere. “Unless we have a more realistic approach to the Brexit negotiations we will have a serious issue about how to live up to the targets,” she said.

Also on the panel were the Royal Society of Chemistry’s President-Elect, Professor Dame Carol Robinson, Immediate Past President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Professor John McGagh, and Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society, Professor Hetan Shah (below left), who asked how the strategy could be made to benefit the 14 million people who live in relative poverty in the UK and avoid adding to poverty through job insecurity.

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

Discussing how to improve STEM skills in the UK, Flint said that diverse teams were better at making good decisions and noted that if the same proportion of girls as boys took A-level physics, there would be 15,000 more entrants. Ghosh quoted from the IOP’s publication that highlighted the tiny proportion of girls who take A-level physics in mixed state schools.

Answering a question from the audience on the role of fundamental science, Flint said: “All science is applied, it’s just that we don’t know what its potential application will be. In industry, most research should be application-driven, however there is a role there for fundamental science and killing it off would be detrimental.”

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

Ghosh chaired a second discussion with Royal Society Fellow Professor Peter Bruce, RSB Trustee Dr Louise Leong, Royal Academy of Engineering Chief Executive Dr Hayaatun Sillem, Vice-President Business of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Professor Iain Gray, and Dr Sarah Main, Executive Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

In a keynote speech, Norman Lamb MP (left), chair of the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, said the strategy’s commitments on spending were “enormously welcome but perhaps we need to be considerably more ambitious”. Countries such as the US and Japan were spending near or above the 3% of GDP already. “In a post-Brexit world we need to make that point to government. We need to increase public spending by at least £2.4bn a year.”

Around 45% of R&D spending went to the “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London, he said, while the UK had some of the poorest regions in north west Europe and we had to devote more attention to how to get investment into the poorer areas.

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

“Negotiations on Brexit will be of fundamental importance in fulfilling our industrial strategy,” he said, arguing that it was “absolutely essential” that the UK should participate in the successor programmes to Horizon 2020. “The Government’s response is ‘yes, we want to in principle, but not at any price’. That leaves open considerable uncertainty and the more that continues the more damaging that will be.”

Rebecca Endean, Director of Strategy at UK Research and Innovation, which was launched in April, said the UK was world-leading and the Government had “put its money where its mouth is”, while the community had to ensure that “the ideas in our labs are commercialised into real world business opportunities and societal improvements”.

Scientists and politicians meet at Westminster for Parliamentary Links Day
Royal Society of Biology

The final speaker was Claire Perry, Minister of State for Energy, Business and Industrial Strategy (left), who said that the Government was in no doubt of the contribution made by the STEM community. The Government had committed £7bn to new public spending on science and innovation, which was the largest increase for 40 years, she said. “International collaboration is absolutely key to so many of the critical breakthroughs we have seen. We will continue to invest in the UK and continue to welcome the best talent from further afield,” she said.



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