by Zoe Self, postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Veterinary College
While I was delighted to be invited by the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) to attend the Society of Biology’s Parliamentary Links Day, I must admit I was a little nervous, not so much for the prestige of the occasion but for my ignorance regarding politics. I tend to pay relatively little attention. I know that I should listen, as the decisions made influence my future career, but until now I’ve allowed politics to be a ‘black box’ that I do not open. I have to say that #LinksDay2015 changed that for me.
The morning was opened by Stephen Benn (Society of Biology) and Rt Hon John Bercow MP (Speaker of the House of Commons). We heard from Chi Onwurah MP, who focussed on the ‘culture shock’ of moving from engineering to politics, before being introduced to Jo Johnson MP (new Minister for Universities and Science) who described science and parliament as ‘two cultures that overlap too little’.
The first panel session was titled ‘The National Value of Science’, chaired by Stephen Metcalfe MP. We moved briskly through the panel, first up and ‘on the far right’ (titters in the audience) was Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP who used this ‘moment of political freedom’ to describe British science as ‘critical’ in decision making. He held clear views on education and the need for a technical education system from 14-21yrs. Also on the panel was Naomi Weir (Campaign for Science and Engineering), who told the audience how she had researched what politicians were interested in, with the strong message that all politicians come with their own agenda but that all of those areas were heavily underpinned by science. ‘Science is not a niche area’ featured heavily on Twitter following her talk.
In the second panel session, ‘The International Value of Science’, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell noted the value of diversity in research groups. A charismatic speaker, Jocelyn made the audience chuckle more than once. Between the two panel sessions, Stephen Benn introduced Nicola Blackwood MP as the newly-appointed (and first female) Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. Nicola is a non-scientist but communicated well with the scientists in the room, emphasising that she wanted to see science budgets properly allocated and well spent, and that she has a goal to make sure that non-scientists are welcome to engage in science.
Rounding up the morning, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan (incoming president of The Royal Society) discussed the basic sciences and the balance between immediate benefit and long term gain, with the analogy that Newton’s Laws and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity have contributed to a device that stops you getting lost in your car – we never know where science will go! A point I really related to was the need to increase spending as budget cuts lead to younger, future scientists leaving science – more money will then be needed to train up new ones.
The take home messages were related to wider society: austerity, immigration and climate change. The views were inspiring and refreshing but the cynic inside me wonders how much will actually happen vs. it was what the science community wanted and needed to hear……only time will tell!