Views from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Jennifer Rogers

Voice of the Future: young scientists question ministers

Dr Jennifer Rogers, Research Fellow in the School’s Department of Medical Statistics, was among young scientists selected to take part in the ‘Voice of the Future’ event at the House of Commons on Wednesday 20 March.

Organised by the Society of Biology as part of National Science and Engineering week, the event offered young scientists and engineers the opportunity to participate in a Science Question Time with Ministers and members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee.

The event was broadcast by the BBC and streamed by Parliament. Jennifer, who represented the Council for Mathematical Sciences and was nominated by the Royal Statistical Society, tells us about the event: 

In a reversal of the normal select committee format, the MPs appeared before the ‘committee’ as ‘witnesses’ to answer pre-selected questions. The day started in Portcullis House with a briefing of the morning’s events, before the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, formally opened the proceedings and confessed to regretting not taking much interest in science as a child, but is trying to make up for it now!

The first witness was Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, who gave his final evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee last week. He answered questions on science in Government, future science policy and science in the news. Highlighted hot topics were the importance of communication of scientific advice in a clear manner so that ministers with no scientific background can understand it, climate change, the horse meat scandal and a post-antibiotic era.

Next up were members of the Science and Technology Select Committee, including the Chair, Andrew Miller. ‘Women in science’ was a recurring theme throughout the morning and in this panel, the witnesses stressed the importance of women scientists going into schools and acting as role models to young pupils. Another important topic discussed was the development of young scientists and engineers as entrepreneurs and the importance of work experience as well as academic skills. The Select Committee stressed the importance and value of industrial placement years as part of undergraduate education, but said that they would never make them mandatory.

The next panel of witnesses were David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, and Professor John Perkins, Chief Scientific Advisor, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Here, focus turned to tuition fees, especially in comparison to other European countries, poorly defined career paths post PhD, lack of funding for young researchers and the impact on UK science were we to leave the European Union.

It was at this point in particular that I felt it was a shame that additional follow-up questions could not be asked, as some of the responses showed a lack of understanding of the uncertainties faced by post-docs today. Not ring-fencing research funding for young researchers, instead suggesting that senior academics tend to receive funding over younger counterparts because their research is generally of higher quality, was a comment that I would have particularly liked to question further! They did not appear to recognise the need for young post-docs to develop into independent researchers, or the importance of obtaining new investigator grants as part of that process, which raises concerns about UK science base in coming years.

The final witness was Shabana Mahmood, Shadow Minister for Universities and Science. My allocated question was on the recurring topic of women in science: ‘Only 19% of the UK’s workforce in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are female. Do you think that positive discrimination towards women in these fields would be beneficial and how would you suggest universities and STEM companies attempt to prevent the high drop out of women from these fields?’ Shabana Mahmood responded by saying that she felt it was important that companies be flexible when it comes to women wanting to start families, taking maternity leave and possibly wanting to work part-time. She also confessed to having got her current position because of positive discrimination towards women in politics, but struggled to see how it would work practically in STEM fields.

The event could easily have been stretched out to a full day so that follow-up questions could be asked in reaction to MPs responses, but as it was budget day, there were obvious time constraints. All-in-all, the morning was extremely interesting and I loved having the opportunity to visit the House of Commons and see how a Select Committee works.

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