Early-career scientists quiz politicians at parliamentary event

15 March 2018

Questions about the impact of Brexit were high on the agenda when early-career researchers cross-examined politicians at Voice of the Future – an event in Parliament on 13 March that turned the usual format of committee sessions on its head.

Early-career scientists quiz politicians at parliamentary event

IOP was among several learned societies that put forward early-career scientists to take part and quiz MPs and advisers on science policy, with the questioners sitting in the seats usually occupied by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and the politicians appearing as witnesses in front of them.

Early-career scientists quiz politicians at parliamentary event

Sam Gyimah  Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, took questions in the first session, including one from IOP Associate Member Robin Ravi Gajria (pictured left), who asked how the Government planned to help and encourage more UK researchers to make use of collaboration opportunities outside the EU post-Brexit.

Early-career scientists quiz politicians at parliamentary event

Gyimah (pictured left), replied that bilateral relationships with countries outside the EU would be key to enabling UK scientists to travel abroad and the Government was looking more broadly at facilitating this around the globe. It was also seeking an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the EU that would mean it would continue to be a partner in EU programmes, helping to influence them and therefore make it easier for UK scientists to be a part of them.

In answer to similar questions, he said an independent migration advisory committee was helping to shape the UK’s policy on movement of people from outside the EU after Brexit. He said: “We’re under no illusions about the fact that to retain our world-leading position in research and innovation we need the best minds to be able to come here freely; both EU and international students make an important contribution to science and to higher education overall.”

Early-career scientists quiz politicians at parliamentary event

In her session for answering questions, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation Chi Onwurah (left) said the impact of Brexit has been and is likely to be detrimental to science and innovation in the UK but Labour was trying to mitigate this by seeking close relationships with EU institutions, including continuing to be part of Euratom. She said Shadow Secretary for Exiting the EU Keir Starmer was constantly talking to the EU institutions in Brussels to see how this could be achieved. “There’s a desire within the EU to keep us as part of the programmes because we are a very successful scientific nation,” she said.

Early-career scientists quiz politicians at parliamentary event

Dr Robert Thompson, an early-career academic at UCL representing IOP, asked her what could be done to support early-career researchers with young families who face the uncertainties of short-term contracts. She said this was a challenge for all postdocs and particularly those with caring responsibilities, but it hadn’t been addressed in any substantial way and was a barrier that stopped many people from entering scientific careers. She wanted to see best practice guidelines adopted across institutions, she said, but also turned the question back on Robert for his suggestions.

He said fellowships, generally governed by the research councils, were one way for people to move on from short-term contracts, but the application time could be so long that it equalled the length of just such a contract. He suggested that there could be a responsibility on the research councils to help with career management. Onwurah agreed that there was a real gap in employee rights in this area and Labour wanted to set up a national education service for lifelong learning, which could help to address this, she said.

There were a number of questions to both Gyimah and Onwurah on encouraging greater diversity in the science community, while further questions on tackling the under-representation of women, people with disabilities or illnesses, black, Asian and minority ethnic people and those entering careers through a non-academic route were put to MPs Martin Whitfield, Stephen Metcalfe and Carol Monaghan (top) in the third session.

Gyimah said the statistics on women’s representation were disappointing, with only about half of female STEM graduates going on to work in the sector. In the US, this waste of talent was characterised as “the lost Einsteins” and if the best people did not go into STEM fields it was our society and our country that lost out, he argued. From April, the new UKRI would be running programmes aimed at increasing diversity in the STEM workforce and partners would be encouraged to improve the diversity of fellowship awards.

Onwurah said Labour’s commitment to abolish tuition fees would encourage people from all backgrounds to go into STEM careers and its target would be to double the number of Level 3 apprenticeships for those taking a non-academic route into science careers.

Conservative MP and former Science and Technology Committee chair Steven Metcalfe said the funding bodies’ ability to award grants could be used to encourage diversity. “We have some tools – we just have to use them,” he said.

Scottish National Party MP Carol Monaghan said it was a struggle to recruit and retain people in science so we needed to make pathways available for talented people regardless of their background or gender. There was no reason why creative ideas that had worked in other sectors, such as job-sharing, could not be adopted in science, she said. Labour MP Martin Whitfield said MPs had to keep highlighting the issue and persuading and cajoling people to keep as many doors open to them as possible.

Other questions covered issues such as research integrity, funding, commercialisation of research, fake news, critical thinking skills in education and data protection. In a final session, Dr Rupert Lewis, Director of the Government Office for Science, who was standing in for Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Chris Whitty, answered questions including one on how the Government makes evidence-based policy decisions where public opinion may not be aligned with science.

As well as Robin Ravi and Robert, the IOP’s representatives on the panel included Maciej Matuszewski and Oscar Kennedy. Robin Ravi, Robert and Maciej all serve on the founding committee of the Early Career Members Group, which has its launch event on 5 April.

The event, which was organised in National Science and Engineering Week by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the science and engineering community, was recorded by Parliament TV. It can currently be viewed online.