Science and the Parliament

As the Microbiology Society’s Policy and Member Engagement Intern, I joined the policy team at this year’s Science and the Parliament Conference, which took place in Edinburgh on 14th November. The event was organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, with the intention of bringing together scientists, parliamentarians and policy makers, though a programme of speeches and panel discussions.

Events like this are an excellent opportunity for the Society to stay up to date with key issues in science policy. In addition, taking part in the event’s exhibition alongside other scientific bodies, gave us a chance to highlight the role microbiology plays in solving “big picture” problems.

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Diversity and skills

The conference theme “Education and skills” was presented in the context of the Scottish Government’s Five Year STEM (science technology, engineering and maths) Strategy, launched in 2017. The Strategy was introduced by Scotland’s Minister for Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead. He acknowledged the uncertainties in science brought by Brexit, but stressed the Scottish Government’s belief that STEM innovations were central to Scotland’s prosperity. The Strategy aims to build capacity in Scotland’s STEM workforce by addressing equality issues and inspiring more young people to study STEM subjects. Following on from this, Scotland’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sheila Rowan, also spoke about the work her office does to champion STEM.

Subsequent speeches and panel discussions looked at challenges faced by the Scottish and UK STEM sector with particular emphasis on two central themes:

  • Diversity and female participation in STEM
  • Engaging young people with STEM to address STEM skills gaps

Science and schools

The first panel discussion of the afternoon included representatives from colleges, scientific institutions and local governments, with a focus on STEM engagement in schools. Stephen Breslin, CEO of the Scottish Science Centre, talked about the confidence building sessions his organisation ran for teachers lacking a scientific background. Mark Irwin, from Glasgow City Council, agreed that teachers needed support and spoke about the many fun science initiatives his team ran for schools, including providing 3D printers for a day and posting science activities via Twitter.

Science and politicians

The second panel discussion included MSPs from the main Scottish political parties including Patrick Harvie (Green Party), Claire Adamson (Scottish National Party), Liz Smith (Scottish Conservative Party) and Johann Lamont (Scottish Labour Party). Rather surprisingly there was general agreement, that although Scotland’s STEM future held great promise, gender and skills gaps needed to be addressed. The policy team’s attention piqued when the panel was asked how scientists could better engage with politicians. It was clear that all the speakers were keen to talk to scientists and they emphasised the importance of evidence based policy. Johann Lamont also suggested that scientists had a role in ensuring the science presented by politicians was accurate and accessible to everyone.

The STEM gender gap

The final session of the day was dedicated to discussions around the STEM gender gap, with reference to a recent report by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Young Academy of Scotland. Introduced by Prof. Lesley Yellowlees (University of Edinburgh), the Tapping all our Talents 2018 Report, is a review of progress made over the last 6 years towards improving female participation in STEM in Scotland. We learnt the depressing fact that in 2017, just 30% of female STEM graduates went on to work in STEM related fields (compared to 57% of male graduates). Prof. Yellowlees suggested that this figure represented a leaky talent pipeline, which was impacting badly on prosperity within the sector.

Follow up speaker, Douglas Morrisson (STEM and Innovation Lead, City of Glasgow College) and Talat Yaqoob (Director, Equate Scotland) emphasised the role of employers in building better work environments for both men and women. Tanya Wilson (Lecturer in Economics, Adam Smith Business School) showed how increasing diversity in the workplace made economic sense, because different people brought different ideas.

To boldly go…

To round off the talks Prof Dame Anne Glover, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, explained through the medium of Star Trek, how a quality STEM education could give young people the ability to boldly go where no man or woman has gone before. She showed how several sci-fi based tech gadgets, had been the inspiration for many of the modern technologies we use today, and said that STEM allows people to make imagination become reality. As a final thought, she talked about how the diverse makeup of the Star Trek crew was central to its success, just as in STEM – we need everyone to make it work.

Suzanne Martin

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