Monday 13 March saw the return of the first in-person Voice of the Future (VOF) event since 2019. This insightful and educational event flips the usual format of a Parliamentary Select Committee, giving students and Early Career Researchers within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) the power to ask questions on issues that matter to them as young scientists. This event is organised by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the STEM community.
Prior to being joined by members of the Science and Technology (S&T) Select Committee, the VOF 2023 members had an introductory open discussion on current hot topics. The underlying theme throughout was ‘encouraging the growth of science communications across STEM subjects to encourage collaboration and understanding between researchers, politicians and the public’.
Ahead of the first session Stephen Metcalfe MP took the time to describe how the Select Committee’s work. He explained how these groups are set up to investigate specific issues or perform a specific scrutiny role and act as a bridge between academia and parliamentarians. Unlike All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), where there is no statutory meaning and governments have no obligation to respond, the government is expected to respond to findings and recommendations made in a published report from select committees.
Session 1: Stephen Metcalfe MP, Carol Monaghan MP, Katherine Fletcher MP, S&T Select Committee
The first session was kick-started with a question from the Institute of Physics regarding the future of nuclear energy generation within the UK where Katherine Fletcher outlined the vital role nuclear energy will play in being able to achieve net zero by 2050. However, the barriers surrounding its approval and implementation relate to contracts for difference, pricing mechanisms and a more subject specific barrier of including fusion as well as fission.
The Biochemical Society highlighted that the number of scientists within the UK government over the past 15 years has decreased and asked what more can be done to encourage scientists to take up roles within government or policy? A question that is translatable across all scientific disciplines. Though it seems no one knew why this had happened the S&T Select Committee believed that comms and PR could be the solution. They described how there needs to be increased communication of the availability of roles, such as civil service advisory roles, to those with a scientific background and that these roles need to be made increasingly accessible. It was also expressed that there may be a need for PR to help repair reputational damage associated with politicians to encourage scientists to consider a career within politics.
Following on from this the council for the Mathematical Sciences representative asked what more could be done to address the gender disparities with mathematics. This is an issue encountered across STEM subjects and it was interesting to listen to the suggestive actions that could be taken to tackle this. Carol Monaghan explained the need to appeal to both the young person themselves and their parents, who are often forgotten about but are vital in facilitating the uptake and interest in these subjects. Katherine Fletcher added that creating role models within STEM subjects is highly important to get out of hiring and viewing in their own image. Finally, Stephen Metcalfe suggested that solving issues with job security and professorships could help with female career progression.
The S&T Select Committee discussed how research on post-COVID conditions to treat ill health could be coordinated in order to answer the question posed by the Royal Society of Biology. Here, it became clear that artificial intelligence could have a large role to play, but that it is also important to ensure the right environment where the correct research tools are available to researchers. Alongside this it was suggested that it is vital for people to share their data on a wider platform to allow patterns to be identified.
The final question of the session came from the British Pharmacological Society, which focused on how the government can overcome the challenges facing all pharmaceutical companies in terms of developing new treatments for emerging diseases. The S&T Select Committee explained this will be through the creation of a thriving environment for the life sciences industry; access to finances, talent and governmental support. Furthermore, Stephen Metcalfe shared that by using the NHS as a resource to support trials and investigating pricing mechanisms for the way drugs are taxed and the contributions made by drug companies the UK can become a more attractive place to develop and deploy novel medicines.
Session 2: Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Adviser, DEFRA
The second session with the DEFRA Chief Scientific Advisor commenced with a question from the Association for Applied Biologists asking how parliament plans to ensure that the public is well-informed about the benefits of genetic technology and precision breeding? Professor Henderson stated that making consumers aware of the benefits can be difficult because many consumers do not care, as their focus lies on healthy and affordable food rather than how it is produced. For consumers who are interested in this, the key focus is on how they get information about this production system and how to put forward this information in easily accessible channels. Professor Henderson expressed that researchers within the field need to be encouraged to spread the message on what they are doing to encourage a diversity of voices within this debate.
To end the second session the Applied Microbiology Society asked a broad question on how the UK’s current research and innovation can be successfully implemented into policy changes. Professor Henderson started by stating the importance of having those with an academic background in the civil service and in Chief Scientific Advisory roles feeding active research into policy making. He then outlined that the range of capabilities in government department civil service populations could be further strengthened as well as recognising that translating research into policy is a skill. His concluding remark was to continue to allow different voices, such as universities, industrial sectors, and NGOs, to speak to the government about how they see the different issues to allow policy to follow the latest thinking.
Session 3: Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee
The final session with Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee began with a question from The British Ecology Society asking what the government are doing to prevent sewage being released in water bodies and to restore the health of our aquatic ecosystems.
Philip Dunne explained the root cause of the problem; though the UK have developed systems above ground to cope with wastewater and sewage in the last 60 to 100 years, underground systems have not developed the capacity to cope with the effluent that the growing population is producing. He went on to explain that the government have established a sewage discharge reduction plan which requires companies to invest 56 billion pounds in water treatment over the next 25 years.
The final question from the Geological Society was around governmental plans to minimise the barriers to sustainable, reliable heating for the UK. Philip Dunne advised that the Environmental Audit Committee is looking to make a case that the government should support research and development funding to bring down the cost of exploiting geothermal energy as cost is a significant barrier within this area. However, the question regarding ownership and rights to subsurface heat is complex and difficult to answer.
As someone who does not have a deep understanding of the political world, I was unsure what to expect from the afternoon and was worried I would feel out of my depth. However, this was not the case at all; I felt included and engaged throughout the entire event. Leading with an initial discussion on current topics and issues within science and policy was an unexpected but fantastic way to start the session. It showcased how the key issues above impact multiple scientific disciplines and for each answer, there were key takeaway points, regardless of the society you were representing. Additionally, having an introduction from Stephen Metcalfe on Select Committee work, helped me engage with the panel session. It was also fantastic to experience the personality and passion of those on the S&T Select Committee, the DEFRA Chief Scientific Adviser and the Environmental Audit Committee. I was amazed by the breadth of the panel's knowledge across the STEM subjects. Having people with the right motivations occupying these positions gave a sense of hope for future positive change.
Moreover, hearing the commonality of the issues raised by the STEM societies was inspirational, making the possibility of change feel realistic and achievable. I felt empowered as a young scientist and I was proud to be there on behalf of an organisation, The Nutrition Society, that supports such events. Entering the Houses of Parliament was an experience in itself; being seated where MPs would usually sit surrounded by other like-minded young scientists was special.
Overall, I left this event with a feeling of empowerment and hope. I would highly recommend any students or ECRs within any scientific field encourage their society to support and attend this event. The more voices we have championing STEM subjects and pushing matters that are important to us, the better. I hope to have the fortune to attend VOF in the future.
As a young intern from the United States, I was honoured to attend VOF 2023 in Parliament. Entering Parliament was awe-inspiring as many impactful decisions are made each day. Before moving to the UK for my internship, I researched British history and politics to have a better understanding of the country, so this event brought my learnings to life.
This event was particularly special as it featured not only panels with Members of Parliament, but also a variety of scientists and students from different universities and organisations. The questions covered many relevant topics ranging from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to nuclear energy sustainability. Although these topics are unique on their own, they each relate to each other to improve public health.
An interesting conversation that kept surfacing was the importance of collaboration between scientists and politicians. Katherine Fletcher, MP from South Ribble, mentioned how scientists should be allowed to have more responsibility in the policy making process related to public health, as they are often more educated on the scientific evidence. This was an incredibly thought-provoking topic in a room with both politicians and scientists.
Attending VOF 2023 was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I will cherish my experience at the event moving forward in my career in public health.