Parliamentary Links Day 2016

Parliament and Portcullis HouseParliamentary Links Day, organised by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the science and engineering community, is an annual event that brings together the scientific community and Members of Parliament. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Science after the Referendum: What Next?’ and could not have been more relevant and timely following the referendum result just four days prior. The room was packed to capacity with the majority of attendees standing, reflecting the scientific community’s great interest in their future in these uncertain times.

The day included introductions and speeches from Members of Parliament, two panel discussions and closing addresses from Lord O’Neill and Sir Venki Ramakrishnan FRS, the President of the Royal Society.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, started the day off by assuring the room that science is fundamental in the progression of the country and spans all political beliefs. This was followed up by the Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson MP, who raised the question of how can we minimise the potential damage to science from leaving the European Union (EU) and maximise the opportunities.

Johnson, who was an advocate to remain in the EU, was eager to reassure the room that it was still business as usual and stated that “nothing has changed overnight”. He indicated that those receiving EU funding will continue to do so for the near future and that Horizon 2020 funding will continue to flow.

Nicola Blackwood MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, gave a stirring speech about Britain “being open for business” and explained that the UK “remains a scientific superpower that the world will continue to reckon with”. She said that the scientific community must ensure that its voice is heard during the upcoming negotiations about exiting the EU.

The two panels that followed were split into the themes ‘Science and Europe’ and ‘Science and the World’. The first panel, chaired by Stephen Metcalfe MP, featured Nicola Dandridge, (CEO of Universities UK), Dr Sarah Main (Director of CaSE) and Imran Khan (Chief Executive of the British Science Association). Most of the discussions in this panel centred on how to communicate to those that voted Leave that science is extremely important to everyone in the country. Dr Main stressed that the science community needs to be heavily involved in the discussions around the uncoupling from the EU in order to continue the strong scientific networks the UK has with its European counterparts.

The second panel was a discussion of how the referendum result will influence the relationship between the UK and international scientific and technological communities. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, brought attention to the UK’s involvement in the recent discovery of gravitational waves and significant contribution to solving many global health issues. Dr Robert Parker, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, reminded the audience that there have been other periods in time where there has been political unknown and British science was able to help ‘smooth the waters’, for example following war.

This second panel had a lively discussion with members of the audience, including Microbiology Society member Heather Macklyne. Heather, who is a PhD student, asked the panel what recommendations they had for researchers at the early stages of their careers who were thinking about working in Europe or internationally. The response from the panel to this question was mixed, with some encouraging all scientists to pursue international careers regardless of being an EU member or not and others insisting nothing will change in the near future.

The first closing speech was from Lord O’Neill, Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, who led on the recent Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. He reassured those present that he will still continue to present his recommendations to the meeting of the G20 nations later this year for a deal on new drugs and that the scientific community must not lose sight on what is important. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan FRS gave the final talk of the day, reminding the room that the UK is a world leader in science and technology innovation, and that the British science and technology community must face the challenges ahead by continuing to invest. Sir Venki said that the UK was a “global market for talent and we must ensure we maintain our reputation”. He reminded the scientific and political communities to not make any rash decisions while negotiations unfold.

Parliamentary Links Day is a great opportunity for the political and scientific communities to get together and discuss the issues that are important to them both. The event was particularly timely as it gave researchers the opportunity to voice their concerns and share their ideas about moving forward, and for the parliamentarians present to provide reassurance, after the referendum vote.

Hannah Forrest

Image credit: Garry Knight on Flickr under CC BY 2.0
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