by Dr Benjamin Foster
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard phrases like “following the science” from politicians with regard to lockdowns, track and trace and other COVID-related policies. But how does science actually inform Government policy decisions?
Voice of the Future is an event organised by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of several learned societies, including the Biochemical Society, to enable young scientists to ask questions to politicians and policymakers. Engaging school-age students and early career researchers (ECRs) in this process exposes them to how MPs and civil servants take on board scientific advice and how much this informs policy decisions within the corridors of power.
Quizzing senior MPs
In the opening session, Amanda Solloway MP (Minister for Science, Research and Innovation) discussed the development of the new R&D “people and culture” strategy, outlining the direction the sector needs to take “to ensure scientists, researchers and innovators feel secure in the longevity and flexibility of their careers, and that they work in an environment that is inclusive, supportive, and has a zero-tolerance policy to harassment and discrimination.” With the COVID-19 pandemic seeming to increase the inequalities gap in STEM, Solloway added that this roadmap would provide an environment for everyone to flourish. She hoped that the Royal Society’s Resume for Researchers (also taken forward by UKRI) would provide the template for taking the whole scientist into account for STEM careers and research funding, rather than a one-size fits all system based on the “publish or perish” mindset.
Chi Onwurah MP (Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Technology) also broached the subject of short-term contracts in academic research later in the morning session. Onwurah commented: “the gig economy has started in academia for ECRs” with fixed-term contracts leading to reduced career stability and driving highly skilled workers away from academia. Onwurah called on research councils to ensure minimum contract periods, more public-private partnerships and increasing the number of longer-term and permanent research positions.
Solloway also discussed the new legislation she introduced to establish ARIA (Advanced Research & Invention Agency), which has been awarded £800m in Government funding to carry out “high-risk, high-reward” research. Solloway explained that ARIA will be equipped with “unique powers and freedoms to take a flexible approach to programme funding and investing in really ambitious research at an unprecedented speed.”
Grilling the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor
The afternoon session featured the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance. Vallance has become a well-known face during the COVID-19 pandemic and he answered questions relating to the pandemic response and future scientific challenges for the UK Government.
Vallance discussed how the collaboration between academia and industry has enabled vaccine development in an astoundingly short amount of time. He commented on how much of the development was done in parallel, with regulators involved from the very start and how innovative ideas from small companies were able to be scaled up, with the required quality assurance, by larger companies.
Vallance also discussed how scientists could be influential in policymaking roles. Aside from more obvious roles in, for example, the vaccines taskforce or technical areas, he commented that more science or engineering expertise across the board would be beneficial in identifying solutions to policy problems. Having a “diversity in decision making” in the civil service and with the right environment to provide independent advice and observations, STEM members could play a huge part in policymaking. He commented on the presence of a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics but not in Politics, Philosophy and Science and getting more ECRs into advisory bodies and policy areas is something he has high hopes for, referencing a scheme by his counterpart in Canada for a youth council.
A role reversal with a Select Committee
The final session of the day gave the opportunity for ECRs to pose questions to members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, including its chair Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Carol Monaghan MP, Dawn Butler MP, and Katherine Fletcher MP.
The committee discussed what they hoped the new science agency, ARIA, may achieve, such as allowing science to be done more “freely” with funding provided in a less “risk averse” way that tolerates some level of failure.
They also discussed how more scientists can get involved in politics, either through directly entering through the civil service or as an MP, and from outside, through the impact of their work or providing an independent voice to Select Committee enquires. The Select Committee have regular open enquiries that scientists of any level can feed evidence into, enabling the committee to scrutinise policy and Government decisions.
Other topics discussed throughout the day included quantum computing, COP26 and the prospect for Net Zero and combating plastic pollution, sustainability in battery technology, vaccine hesitancy, critical thinking in schools and the importance of accurately communicating science to the public.
Honestly, I went into the event with quite a high degree of scepticism over how helpful the answers would be. But the excellent level of discussion and honest, candid answers from all concerned meant I ended the day with a large sense of optimism and hope in having a UK Government that is, indeed, led by the science.
About the author:
Dr Benjamin Foster is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford. Find out more about Benjamin on his Twitter and LinkedIn accounts below.