The (British Science) Week in Westminster

British Science Week is always an exciting week at the Biochemical Society, with several annual events taking science to Westminster. In addition, this week has been extraordinary for UK politics, so we thought we’d give you a quick round-up of some of the highlights from science in Parliament this week.

Voice of the Future

The eighth Voice of the Future was held on Tuesday (12 March). This unique event turns the tables on MPs and ministers, requiring them to answer questions from students and Early Career Researchers from across STEM disciplines in Select Committee-style.

The line-up of politicians this year was all the more impressive given the commotion elsewhere in the House, with the event opened by the speaker John Bercow. The panels featured members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Science Minister and Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation.

Unsurprisingly, the “B-word” was featured in many questions and answers alluding to its potential impact on Science and Innovation in the UK. Other topics included air pollution, research funding and widening participation both in research and politics. Several of the panellists emphasised the importance of researchers engaging with politicians including Carol Monaghan MP calling on people to contact their MPs, and be a nuisance!

Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation answering questions from Early Career Researchers. Photo credit RSB.

We were represented by six biochemists from across the UK, including Maelíosa McCrudden from Queen’s University Belfast who said after the event:

“Personal highlights of the day included the opening address delivered by Speaker of the House, Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, who managed to educate and entertain the assembled scientists in equal measure, and hearing the views and opinions offered by Carol Monaghan MP, who acquired 20 years of science teaching experience before she chose to embark on her political career.

For those of us who often feel more comfortable in a laboratory than in a political arena, “Voice of the Future” serves to highlight the interlinking of science policy and politics, dispelling some of the myths surrounding political decision-making.”

For more details on the event, see this article by the Royal Society of Biology, or you can listen to a recording on Parliament TV. Look out for a future blog post from one of our representatives at this year’s Voice of the Future.

STEM for Britain

On Wednesday (13 March), the annual STEM for Britain poster competition took place. This is the largest event that brings scientific research directly into the Houses of Parliament. Organised by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, it gives MPs the chance to meet with their constituents and other young researchers to hear about their work.

The research displayed in all categories exemplified the quality of research in the UK, particularly showing the inter-disciplinary nature of research today.  A huge congratulations to all of the poster presenters who had been selected from submitted abstracts. Prizes were awarded within each of the disciplines, culminating with the award of the Westminster medal to Sophie Morse from the Engineering section. For full list of winners see the STEM for Britain website, or check out #STEM4BRIT19 on twitter.

Photo credits RSB.

Dr Mark Roberts, member of the Biochemical Society Education Committee and Policy Advisory Panel was one of the judges in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences section. Commenting on STEM for Britain, he said:

“It was a pleasure to act as a judge on Wednesday. The posters displayed showed-off the fantastic breadth of research in bioscience! Considering what a busy day it was for them, it was great to see so many MPs come in to chat with scientists and have an insight into UK science.”

Keep an eye out for the call for abstracts to be part of this special event next year.

Spring Statement

Wednesday also saw Philip Hammond give his Spring Statement, in which the Chancellor announced the exemption of PhD-level occupations from the cap on high-skilled visas from Autumn 2019. In addition, field-research performed overseas will count as UK residence and can therefore be used by researchers applying for settlement in the UK (Indefinite Leave to Remain).

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) have been leading the way in calling for these changes, and you can find their response to the statement here. Last year the Biochemical Society co-signed CaSE’s letter to the Prime Minister with 44 other organisations calling for the removal of the Tier 2 visa cap.

Commenting on these changes, Dr David Pye, Honorary Policy Officer at the Biochemical Society said:

“These changes to visa regulations will hugely benefit UK molecular bioscience and means researchers will no longer be unfairly penalised for conducting work overseas. The steps announced today are welcome news for science and innovation and I hope that the government will continue to consider the sector’s needs in the Immigration Bill currently before Parliament. It will be crucial to combine these developments with an open approach to continuing to attract people to work in the UK.”

Also announced in the statement was the news that the £700 million package of reforms, announced in 2018 to help small firms take on more apprentices, will be brought forward to the start of the new financial year.  The hope is that this will help to boost apprenticeship numbers, alongside other developments in technical education, including the new T-level system, which is on track to deliver the first three routes in 2020, with the health and science route due to be introduced in 2021.

Brexit Voting frenzy

It’s no secret that Brexit is important to the molecular bioscience community, and the debates taking place added extra excitement to being in Westminster this week. As the 29 March fast approaches, here is a brief summary of what happened this week.

Tuesday: MPs decisively rejected the Prime Minister’s deal despite the changes since January.

Wednesday: After a narrowly passed amendment, Parliament voted to avoid the UK exiting the EU without a deal under any circumstances. However, it’s important to remember that while it may be influential, this vote was not legally binding and therefore No-Deal remains the legal default unless either a deal or an extension to Article 50 is agreed.

Thursday: MPs voted in favour of extending Article 50. The motion presented two options; either a short extension if a deal is agreed by 20 March, or, if not, a longer extension may be requested which could involve the UK taking part in the European elections in May.

The results from this week suggest that the Prime Minister will potentially present her deal to MPs for a third meaningful vote next week. For further information, the BBC have a guide to what might happen next and also have a handy Brexit jargon buster.

A No-Deal Brexit is still possible, and would have a large impact on science and innovation in the UK. This was highlighted in a recent consultation by the Science and Technology Committee, to which we fed into RSB’s response. CaSE have also done lots of work looking at the impact of Brexit on science and engineering in the UK.

We remain committed to representing the molecular bioscience community in Parliament and highlighting the importance of continued close collaboration as Britain prepares to leave the EU. To help us with our work, please get in touch with your experiences. We are particularly interested in any case studies involving international collaboration.

To hear more about our policy work, and to have the opportunity to feed into our consultation responses, Biochemical Society members can join our Policy Network. For more information visit https://bit.ly/2stNjSX.

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