By James Borrell, NERC funded PhD student and science policy intern at the Society of Biology
What role will science play in the new parliament? How will new research influence policy? Will science funding increase or continue to decline?
The answers to these questions are elusive, but perhaps the clearest bellwether of the prevailing scientific climate is the annual Parliamentary Links Day. The largest science event in the parliamentary calendar, Links Day is organised by the Society of Biology on behalf of the science and engineering community.
As a NERC funded PhD student on a three month science policy internship, Links Day was a tangible opportunity to see how science and government interact. I’m very aware than when scientists are based at universities and institutes across the UK it can be difficult to understand how their work relates to developments in Westminster. So as an aspiring scientist, here are six take home messages about science in the new Parliament.
Science is taken seriously. Politicians are busy people, so perhaps the calibre of people that make time to attend is a good indicator of the importance attributed to the event. By this measure, Links Day and hence the role of science, is clearly important.
Notable speakers included Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Jo Johnson MP, and Nicola Blackwood MP (Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee). The list of Lords and MPs goes on, complimented by Presidents and directors of various scientific organisations and societies.
It was a who’s who of politics and science and that can only be a good thing. There was even a signed letter from the PM apologising that he couldn’t attend.
Science spending is declining. Since public research funding was frozen five years ago, inflation has knocked at least £1 billion off of research investment. Yet the prognosis for funding over the next parliament is still an open question. Huge numbers were mentioned, such as £6.9 billion being invested by 2021, including a £2.9 billion grand challenges fund. But how will this shape the overall science budget?
Encouragingly, there was much talk of an aspiration to spend 3% of GDP on science (currently it’s around 1.6%). Whether aspirations can gather cross-party support remains to be seen.
Batteries not included. A catchy slogan, mentioned frequently. The point being that high profile investments in cutting edge equipment and facilities do not reach their full potential unless stable long-term funding is available to run those facilities.
Politicians with a science background. The number of MPs in parliament with a background or interest in STEMM subjects decreased from 103 to 91 after the 2015 general election. So what can we do to achieve greater representation of science in parliament? It was eloquently pointed out that those scientists in Parliament are the ones that took the opportunity to stand! So the best way to get more scientists into Parliament is for more of us to throw our hats in the ring.
Influencing policy. If you’re unhappy about something, we’re often told to write to our MPs – after all, they represent us in parliament, and that’s how democracy works. Interestingly, it was suggested that a more effective route for evidence based science policy, was to write to MPs specialist advisers. Whilst crucial research findings are likely to get lost in a Minister’s inbox, an Adviser’s job is to read and synthesis important information.
We should be proud of our achievements. Finally, there was a sense of celebration. In the UK scientific evidence still underpins most decisions. Indeed the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology will publish a report in on how scientific evidence is used in UK, in 2016. Investment in UK science still offers among the best returns in the world and UK innovation underpins our economic growth. Overall, Parliament is ambitious about our role today globally.
In the coming decade we face significant challenges, from insecticide and drug resistance to rising global temperatures and declining biodiversity. With the millennium development goals expiring at the end of 2015, and the sustainable development goals succeeding them, research and innovation is consistently in demand. Science in the UK will undoubtedly play a crucial role in rising to those challenges, just as it has in the past. We should be encouraged that Government, although it doesn’t always seem to get things right, continues to value scientific research as the foundation of a modern sustainable society that it is.
Read more about Parliamentary Links Day on the Society of Biology website.
Read more from James Borrell on his blog.