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Voice of the Future 2017

23 Mar 2017

Naomi Clarke, CaSE intern, attended the sixth annual Voice of the Future event where young STEM representatives quiz key political figures at the Houses of Parliament about the science policy issues that matter to them.

On March 15th, I made my way to Portcullis House in Westminster, part of the Houses of Parliament, to represent CaSE at the annual Voice of the Future event, organized by the Royal Society of Biology, on behalf of the science and engineering community. I was joined by a large and varied selection of other young STEM representatives, aged 18-35, all ready for the unique chance to quiz senior figures from Parliament and Government on STEM issues close to their hearts. Over a dozen science organisations were represented, as well as several schools and the event trended on Twitter.

The USP of this event is that the normal select committee format is reversed, allowing the young science and engineering representatives to question MPs and Government officials whereas it is usually the MPs asking the questions. This turn of events in today’s current political climate made for an interesting and informative afternoon with questions ranging from renewable energy, artificial intelligence, post-truth politics, and of course Brexit and Trump’s science policy.

The first witness questioned was Chi Onwurah, MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation. I was lucky enough to ask the first question, about resistance to globalization being an opportunity or a threat to UK science and technology. Onwurah answered swiftly, using no notes. She highlighted how science and policy are the engines of progress, saying the globalization backlash is due to the increased economic inequality. Onwurah held up science and engineering as the tool to be used to help the world, for example, in tackling global access to clean water.

Next up was Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Advisor who answered his questions using a large dossier of facts and figures to back up his answers. Due to his recent appointment to Chief Executive Designate of UK Research and Innovation, the new public funding agency bringing together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England, it was unsurprising when he was asked about this merger and the risks involved. He reassured his STEM savvy audience that UKRI can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts and ensure interdisciplinary research doesn’t fall through the gaps. On post-Brexit science regulation, he said that the UK would be in a good position as much of EU regulation was influenced by UK legislation.  

The third witness to be questioned was Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. Johnson was questioned on Brexit, academic freedom and investment in science, saying that Government’s commitment to investing in research would result in the largest increase in R&D spending in 40 years. He stated that “there’s no limit to the number of international students that can come to the UK”, seeking to reassure the concerned audience that Brexit will not affect the vital European collaboration and communication STEM relies on to thrive. The atmosphere in the room from the young ‘Voices of the Future’ was one of trepidation for the future of science and engineering with regards to Brexit – however many times we were reassured there was still the looming knowledge that already students and researchers are choosing not to come to the UK.

Johnson was also questioned about air pollution, a serious concern for those living in the capital. He again sought to reassure his audience by detailing the Government’s future actions to improve air quality, however some of the aims seemed to be a little too far off in the future to satisfy the audience. The audience were however pleased to hear Johnson hailing evidence based policy as crucial for underpinning government decisions

Finally, the panel addressed the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee in a session where the need to prevent gender bias in STEM was discussed. Ideas such as job shares were brought up, showing the Committee are working hard to think how to make it easier for women to get into, and stay in, the STEM workforce.

Overall the event was hugely refreshing as it demonstrated that engaging youth in science policy and addressing key concerns is a priority for Parliament and Government.  

Sam Lane, a CaSE member who represented CaSE said about the event: “Engaging youth in science policy was clearly a priority of those questioned at the event, and their willingness to support the delegates in encouraging their engagement in the science policy process was refreshing. I am glad I could represent CaSE in such a relevant event of lobbying evidence-based science policy.”