The annual Voice of the Future event, organised by the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) on behalf of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, was held in one of Parliament's grandest committee rooms on 12 March 2019.
The annual event reverses the format of a typical Parliamentary select committee, giving a panel of early career scientists and students a unique opportunity to question MPs and senior political figures on the issues and topics that matter to them. The students all represented UK learned societies from across STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
This year, The Nutrition Society was represented by six student members: Dermot Liddy, Ulster University, Claire Seall, University of Bedfordshire, Alex Williams, University of Brighton, Liam Oliver, Sheffield Hallam University, Cathrine Baungaard, Liverpool John Moores University, and Iman Khwaja, St Mary's University. Together they produced a list of questions to put forward for the select committee, of which two were shortlisted for the event itself.
Dr Stephen Benn, Director of Parliamentary Affairs for the RSB and Vice-President of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, welcomed the Committee before the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, opened proceedings with a short speech; leaving to join the ongoing Brexit debate. Noting the vital importance of STEM for UK growth and development, Bercow spoke of the importance of encouraging more scientists to join Parliament given that ‘STEM will power the future’.
Cathrine Baungaard asked the Society’s first question, asking Committee MPs, what can be done to sustain, and enhance, the UK’s great record for innovation post-Brexit. The Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP responded by highlighting the importance of delivering on the government’s Industrial Strategy in order to unlock innovation, agreeing a Brexit deal in order to move forward with trade deals, and nurturing small STEM companies and start-ups so that they remain in the UK to encourage scientific innovation.
Liam Oliver was the next Society representative to ask a question of the panel, addressing Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. With research suggesting that only 38% of students in England consider their degree tuition fees as good value for money, Liam asked how universities and the government should address this issue with reference to STEM degrees in particular.
Mr Skidmore noted that although controversial, the Teaching Excellence Framework was introduced in an attempt to monitor and assess the teaching quality of universities. As universities are independent organisations, both the government and universities need to work together to ensure students with different needs have a positive teaching experience and receive adequate support. A national review of course fee structures is also currently underway.
Liam Oliver later commented: “The event opened my eyes to important topics I might not have thought about before. There are so many issues and solutions which science can tackle with a collaborative effort. I felt my voice was heard and that, no matter how small my contribution, my input was valued highly as a current student and future scientist.”
The very topical issues of Brexit, ‘fake news’, and sustainability were reoccurring themes throughout the course of the event. With Brexit negotiations ongoing, the select committee agreed that although the ramifications of the UK leaving the European Union remain unknown, scientific collaboration with European and global partners will be critical for encouraging continued investment in research and development (R&D), and attracting scientists to the UK. With technology and computing power transforming the work environment, the UK should aim to increase public and private investment in R&D from 1.7% of GDP to match the OECD average of 2.4%. Questions regarding sustainable scientific innovation focussed on the need to conserve and protect the environment, while several students touched on the difficulties of communicating scientific research to the wider public. The select committee noted that scientists are in fact relatively well-trusted by the general population, and the challenge lies in reframing science as a self-correcting process and a method for investigating issues, not an ‘absolute truth’.
After the event, Dermot Liddy commented that “Studying science at undergrad level can be exciting, frustrating, and exhausting. As a mature student it is simply inspiring to witness so many young scientists with a real passion for science, across a multitude of disciplines, engaging the government to help tackle issues that affect every human-being on the planet.”
Iman Khwaja also reflected that Voice of the Future had provided “a really insightful look into the opportunities and challenges of translating scientific research from a myriad of specialisations into public policy. It allowed me to consider the implications of science and research in a way that I hadn't previously.”
A recording of the event can be found on Parliament TV, and a social media summary curated by the RSB is available on Twitter moments. Alternatively, tweets can be viewed by searching for the hashtag#VOF2019.