Last week, the Society for General Microbiology sponsored my attendance at the Voice of the Future event, which gave early-career researchers like myself the opportunity to grill MPs from the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee (STC). It was an event of pleasant surprises for me: I was surprised at how approachable the politicians taking part seemed, how collegiate members of different political parties were with each other, and how honestly many of the MPs spoke about their motivations for engaging with science. I was especially surprised to find out that many of the MPs even have a sense of humour!
Voice of the Future followed the format of a Select Committee hearing, which saw attendees put questions to Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser; Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities; Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills; and MPs who sit on the STC.
All of the panellists demonstrated an impressive insight into the nature of academic and industry research, science education in this country and knowledge of the specific scientific issues that were brought up throughout the event. I had the opportunity to ask a question to Sir Mark about low levels of vaccine uptake and how the Government could encourage an increase. He admitted that there was no “one-size-fits-all answer” and acknowledged the important role the Government, and in particular he as Chief Scientific Adviser, plays in ensuring the public are well informed on public health issues. He also reminded us that the uptake of some, but not all, vaccines has improved. I thought Sir Mark’s final point, that, with social media giving everyone a louder voice, it is up to all of us as scientists to communicate effectively about scientific issues, was a particularly timely one.
I was surprised to find that many of the STC have a scientific background and it was fascinating to hear them explain the pressures they are under from their constituents and their party, while trying to bring together often-conflicting advice from scientists and other diverse interest groups.
It was then slightly disappointing (though not surprising) that the final two speakers of the day, the Minister and his shadow were more openly party political about their answers. I guess this is unavoidable so close to a general election and it was certainly a stark reminder that the various Ministers and scientific advisers that work together to form science policy are constrained in different ways by their roles in parliament.
The one thing everyone could agree on was that Westminster wants more scientists to engage with policy. Although it was useful to hear about the STC and other formal science policy reviews, it was interesting that many of the MPs noted that one of the most powerful and accessible ways to put science on the political agenda is for constituents to contact their local MP directly. In fact, almost every MP shared anecdotes about how specific scientific issues had been brought to their attention first by their own constituents.
Throughout the event, there were little reminders that we really were at the heart of British politics, like the division bell signalling that a vote was about to take place, or the television screens advertising what was being debated in the House. Somehow this energy was amplified by the upcoming election. The members of the STC reflected nostalgically and frankly about what they considered to be their successes and failures of their current term, with some hoping and looking forward to serving on the committee again in the future. This enthusiasm for science, and the fact that so many important people took the time to take part in Voice of the Future, made the event incredibly enjoyable and informative. It has certainly made policy engagement feel more accessible to me, and I can only commend the organisers for running such a successful event.
Dr Kevin Maringer
Kevin is a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow researching Dengue virus. You can read about his work here. Voice of the Future is organised by the Society of Biology; you can read their write up of the event here.