Parliamentary Links Day 2017: The first involvement by the Nutrition Society

Houses of Parliament

On 27 June 2017, the biggest science policy event in the Parliamentary calendar took place in The House of Commons. The event, organised by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the science community, brings together hundreds of scientists, policymakers and politicians to discuss the issues facing the science sector. As a strategic partner of the Royal Society of Biology, the Nutrition Society was invited to participate this year. The Society's President Professor Philip Calder, Trustee Ms Penny Hunking and I, hosted a number of distinguished guests at the event.

The committee room in Westminster was packed with members across the science community, with standing room only for many attendees. The event was opened by the Speaker John Bercow ahead of  keynote speeches from Jo Johnson MP, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, and Sir John Kingman, Chair Designate of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Panel discussions followed which focused on European and global opportunities for UK science.

Jo Johnson MP emphasised in his address how important it is that the UK remains world leading, alongside the need to achieve better geographic spread of excellence and investment, and the need to translate more research into commercial success. “We maintain the enviable record for science and innovation; we are genuinely world class. We need to work harder to address economic imbalances and historic underinvestment in research and development. We want the UK to remain the go to place for scientists, innovators and tech investors from across the world.”

In his address, Sir John Kingman discussed the future development of UKRI, and the opportunities and challenges the organisation will face in the coming months and years. Both Johnson and Kingman also emphasised the need for continued scientific achievement to leverage continued Treasury support for public investment.

Two panel sessions followed, with leaders in the science sector, politicians and policymakers taking questions from the floor. Both discussions were chaired by BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh.

On the first panel to discuss science and Europe were Professor Roberto di Lauro, Science Attaché for the Embassy of Italy; Dr Lorenzo Melchor, Science Attaché for the Embassy of Spain; Dr Sarah Main, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Their discussion focussed on the challenges for the science sector in the run up to leaving the EU, with Chi Onwurah acknowledging that some EU scientists are now apprehensive about joining the UK community, as well as the need to reassure those already working here that they will be able toreside in a post Brexit era.

This was echoed by Roberto di Lauro, who informed the audience that a survey of Italian academics across UK universities found 82% of respondents were considering leaving post-Brexit. Dr Melchor highlighted the findings of a recent Society of Spainish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK) study and explained that his embassy had set up a specific taskforce to help Spanish academics understand their options for remaining in the UK, as people are still uncertain over their rights to remain. Dr Main commended the science sector on coming together and helping define the top priorities for the upcoming Brexit negotiations, but stressed the importance of the science community continuing to engage with policymakers.

The second panel discussing science in a global context featured Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Malcolm Brinded, Chair of Engineering UK and Professor Sir John Holman, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

This panel discussed the need to expand the global science sector; Dame Jocelyn explained that schools need to offer more comprehensive career advice for those going into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and ensure not only pupils, but also their parents, get excited about becoming scientists. Sir John Holman explained the need for specialist science teachers to inspire students from primary school age, to strengthen the “skills pipeline” and ensure there will be enough scientists for the future. Malcolm Brinded raised the skills shortage faced by global engineering as well as the need to also address diversity. He highlighted the UK is particularly dependant on overseas students coming to study at the UK, with 68% of current postgraduate engineers being from overseas.

A Q&A across both panels with comments and questions from a highly engaged audience covered issues of regulation, funding, political awareness of science issues, leadership against xenophobia, and inspiring the next generation.

The event was concluded with closing remarks from Stephen Metcalfe MP, past chair of the science and technology select committee for the House of Commons. “We know the UK is world leading for science. We know that we have 1% of the world’s population but contribute to 16% of the world’s research citations. We now need to build an optimistic, outward looking, inspirational vision of science in the UK; we need to create a vision that attracts,  not repels, the best scientists in the UK and globally.”

Following the meeting, the Nutrition Society joined other groups in hosting a special luncheon in The House of Lords for many invited guests. The Society was honoured to have been joined by Professor Shrewy from Rothamsted Research (and The Rank Prize Fund), Dr Louise Wilson from Yakult, Helen Munday from the Food and Drink Federation, Professor John Middleton from the Faculty of Public Health and Dr Andrea Graham from the National Farmers Union.

In line with one of the Nutrition Society's strategic objectives of being positioned to advise and inform government and policy makers on the importance of evidence-based nutritional science, I cannot emphasise too strongly how important it is for the Society to support such events as Parliamentary Links Day. The Society's Presidents, Trustees and members have worked tirelessly for many years to establish the preeminence of the Society in its field - that work is now beginning to pay dividends.

Mark Hollingsworth
The Nutrition Society Chief Executive Officer