Tuesday saw the scientific community assemble with MPs at Portcullis House for the annual Parliamentary Links Day, hosted by the Society (soon to be Royal Society) of Biology. The theme for 2015, perhaps unsurprisingly, was ‘Science and the New Parliament’, with a focus on the value of science both within the UK and internationally. This provided speakers the opportunity to highlight a wide range of issues they felt Parliament, the STEM community and society as a whole face over the next five years, with the value of diversity, sustainable investment and long-term vision emerging as the flavor of the day.
Chaired by Stephen Metcalfe MP (C), the day began with an address from John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, who congratulated the Society of Biology for being awarded Royal status. It was excellent to see strong cross-party attendance, with introductory speeches by Chi Onwurah MP (L) and the new minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson MP (C), Liam Byrne MP (L) as a member of the first panel, and a keynote address by Nicola Blackwood MP (C), the recently elected Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee.
Ms Onwurah, an electrical engineer for 20 years before entering the Commons in 2010, claimed that all Parliamentarians need a strong knowledge base in science and teddchnology in order to make informed decisions on many issues, whether it be the HS2 rail link, third runway at Heathrow, or widespread access to high-speed internet. This was a sentiment shared by Mr Johnson, himself a non-scientist, who said that whilst there was a need for more scientists in Parliament, there was a cross-party commitment to science and a focus by the current government on science and technology, who viewed it as a vital component of the economic recovery and planned to invest £6.9bn into science research by 2021. Ms Onwurah also highlighted, however, that science must, in return, understand the importance of politics and that, by working together, the UK can remain at the forefront of scientific achievement.
In her keynote, Ms Blackwood also urged the STEM community to make non-scientist MPs feel welcomed to engage with science, crediting the Royal Society’s pairing scheme that saw an MP and scientist shadow one another for a week in order to improve mutual understanding of their respective fields. She noted how UK research translates funding into results better than any other country in the world, and how it is an intrinsic link between creativity and technology that drives innovation.
Following the conclusion of the second panel (a summary of both panels can be found below), the morning was brought to a close by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President-elect of the Royal Society, who touched upon a variety of issues, including the need for government funding as a stimulus for private investment and the value of immigration to scientific research, leaving the STEM community with much to ponder over the months and years to come.
An Early Day motion applauding the Society of Biology for Links Day 2015 and the ‘continuing commitment to serve the public interest by improving the access of all members to scientific information and a better understanding of science’ was signed by a number of MPs, whilst #LinksDay2015 was in the top 20 trending topics on twitter in the UK; a clear sign of the impact and significance of such an event. Click here for more information about Parliamentary Links Day.
The National Value of Science
Liam Byrne MP (Shadow Minister for Universities and Science) focused on the global purpose of science, national productivity, and his priorities for this Parliament. He highlighted the need for global engagement as most future powerhouses of science are likely to be from abroad, the 20% productivity gap between the UK and the rest of the G7, and the damage the £1bn real-term decrease in the science budget will do as innovation is responsible for approximately 85% of economic growth. He listed his three main policies for the new Parliament as:
1) A cross-party consensus to increase total spending on science from 1.6% to 3% of GDP, as is the case in Germany and the Nordics
2) Improved technical education between 14 and 21 so that everyone has an understanding of science
3) A cross-party consensus on the free movement of science students from across the world
Public funding figures courtesy of the Scienceogram (www.sciencogram.org ) - http://scienceogram.org/in-depth/international-comparisons/
Prof Luke Alphey (Oxitec) stated that innovation and science power economic growth, and at fantastic value, since there is a £14 return for every £1 invested. His other points included the importance of a scientific knowledge base as a requirement in other professions, and the benefit of educating foreign students to British business as they are more likely to work with the UK over other countries in the future.
Clare Viney (Royal Society of Chemistry) applauded the UK as a world leader in research and innovation, highlighting Oxford Nanopore Technologies who recently sequenced an entire human genome in 15 minutes, an achievement of great significance for personalized medicine. She warned, however, that the UK is currently 6th in the G7 for funding, and bottom in terms of public funding, and hoped that the new Parliament would provide a 0.7% increase in funding as public investment drives the private sector in science.
Naomi Weir (CaSE) said that whilst she understood that MPs have a whole range of local, national and international priorities, they must all be encouraged to engage in science as it is not a niche area, but one that underpins many of their priorities.
Sarah Hartwell-Naguib (House of Commons Library) explained that there is a confidential enquiry service for all MPs that takes 30,000 requests a year, including 210 a month on science and the environment. She suggested that the 60 specialists they had within the library were the best information conduit into MPs and encouraged engagement from the scientific community to consistently develop the material on offer to MPs.
The International Value of Science
Dr James Larkin (Royal Marsden Hospital) lauded the advancement in cancer care in the UK, claiming that the NHS enables research that cannot be carried out anywhere else in the world, giving us a great advantage over our global competitors.
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Royal Society of Edinburgh) said that diversity, whether it be gender or nationality, strengthens a research group or business, and believed this should be considered when considering the salary portion of the current visa points system, which works against scientists. Furthermore, Dame Bell Burnell implored the country to remain in the EU as European funding is massively important to UK science.
Hetan Shah (Royal Statistical Society) discussed the international value of the UK statistics sector, for example in military deployment, personalized healthcare, antimicrobial research and disaster relief. He stated that there is a reproducibility crisis in science, and that this needs to be addressed by opening up data sets to for researchers to access.
Prof Chris Whitty (Department of International Development) wanted to praise the contribution of UK science and technology to international development and highlight its prominence within three major examples:
1) Ebola – UK-based epidemiological and pharmacological study
2) Nepal - UK-based seismological, geological and meteorological work
3) Malaria - resistance tracking and drug development, which has helped reduce mortality in Africa due to malaria by 55%
Dr Chris Tyler (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) explained how there is almost no research into the relationship between science and parliaments worldwide, and so, his team is working to establish the value of science advice in policy, which has found that UK science advice in parliament is world leading.