18 November 2016
Catch up on all the action from CaSE's 30th anniversary event, featuring Professor Brian Cox and the Science Minister Jo Johnson.
On the 14th of November CaSE celebrated reaching the grand old age of 30 years by hosting an event on science and engineering over the next 30 years.
The evening was split into two parts: a panel discussion followed by a more intimate ‘in conversation’, both featuring a range of representation from across science, arts, business and politics.
The first half of the evening was introduced by CaSE Director, Dr Sarah Main. Sarah set the scene by asking us to think about this same Monday at 6:30pm in 30 years’ time – picturing what we will be doing, and how our lives and the world will have changed and how we want them to change. Much of this change will of course been down to our relationship with science and technology.
This led into the panel discussion, featuring a diverse cast: Professor Lynn Rothschild, Adjunct Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology & Biochemistry, Brown University; Phil Smith, Chairman, Cisco UK and Ireland; Dr Adam Kucharski, Assistant Professor, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Professor Jonathan Haskel, Professor of Economics, Imperial College London and Katie Ward, Author of 'Girl Reading'.
We first heard from the panel about how they see their fields of work evolving: from real time response to outbreaks of infectious disease, to better understanding of what drives disease transmission; the as yet untapped potential of synthetic biology, from creating organisms which make drugs to recycling electronics; the potential opportunities from mining big data (the new oil!), to understanding how the public interacts with new technology.
This final point particularly drew the focus of discussion. Jonathan Haskel talked, perhaps surprisingly, about lifts. Currently, he explained, we all ‘pile into the same lift’, and go up together. However, a mathematician has created an algorithm that optimizes wait times for each person. But it is hugely unpopular because we, as humans, perceive it as unfair if someone who arrived after us gets their lift first!
This notion of equitable distribution of the benefits of technology was focused on by the panel – and later the audience – with the general conclusion that although science can deliver tremendous improvements to the world, social consensus and equitable distribution are vital to support it. This progressed into how to engage the public and foster this consensus, with a sense across the panel and the room that this was an area with much room for improvement.
Researchers may have their own views of what science is for. But what about the public? Katie Ward shared some of the responses she received from asking people on twitter what they wanted from science. She noted that there were two types of answer: some about specific advances, such as a cure for cancer, or Back To The Future style hoverboards; but some were much more deeply based in a hope that science could help us as people and as a society, citing one response, ‘to stop us killing each other’.
The panel closed with final remarks, touching on what science and engineering means to humanity. Adam Kucharski talked about how to achieve the interdisciplinarity so essential to his work, by keeping specialists in touch with broader skills and allowing new fields to emerge and evolve. Katie Ward appealed to scientists to follow the lines of enquiry they believe in – the same advice she gives to new novelists. Phil Smith talked about the need for regulation to keep pace with technological change – a huge challenge that requires an entirely new framework for making and updating regulation and the involvement of industry and Government. Lynn Rothschild closed, saying that “the innate ability to explore the world and push back the great unknowns, is part of what makes us human”.
You can watch a full recording of the session below:
The second half of the evening was chaired by Professor Jim Al-Khalili in conversation with Professor Brian Cox and Science Minister, Jo Johnson. Education, and school education in particular, was a perhaps unexpected main feature of the discussion, book ending a wide ranging discussion encompassing ‘Boaty’, Philae and Tim Peake as well as diversity, Brexit and immigration.
Johnson began by reflecting on his two primary windows into science; visiting and speaking with researchers at the cutting edge of science and innovation, and his children’s science homework. He highlighted the disconnect between the exciting innovative research, and how children experience science at school. Johnson spoke of the benefit of young people being exposed to, and participating in, real science “seeing the brilliant things which scientists are all doing”, with a nod to the Cox effect. Professor Cox first attempted to question the statistical reliability behind the perceived Cox effect - but went on to illustrate the Minister’s point with an example where he’s that involving young people in real research that is relevant to their community or context can result in dramatic transformation of engagement with science. His view is that it’s not what science you do schools, but “the act of doing science brightens it and makes it more exciting for students”.
Moving on to wider public engagement in science, Johnson mentioned, to much enjoyment in the room, the now infamous Boaty Mc Boatface as an effective but unexpected example of engaging the public with research. Though the government may have made the mistake of asking an open question, the resulting name suggestion caused a global sensation, albeit inadvertently, with the benefit of raising international awareness of Britain’s marine research!
Inevitably, and importantly, the conversation turned to Brexit, with a focus on the rhetoric around science, research and immigration pre and post referendum. Professor Cox pointed out how the UK Government has adopted an “intensely problematic” tone on immigration which has been picked up internationally. He shared a German colleague’s view that “Britain has taken an insular turn after the referendum”.
Johnson highlighted the UK’s continued success at attracting international students, while noting there are specific issues to examine and address in relation to dramatic fall in applications from India. Debate then intensified over the inclusion of international student numbers in immigration figures, when the public doesn’t even consider them immigrants. Discussion also covered concerns over maintaining access to EU funding and programmes post Brexit.
A question put to the panel which deserves particular focus was as to why the UK “hasn’t been as successful as it ought to be at keeping women in science”. Brian Cox talked about initiatives like the Queen Elizabeth prize, which encourage women in engineering, and then moved on to talk about some of the entrenched problems, such as teacher and parental unconscious bias discouraging young women from continuing in STEM. Jim Al-Khalili echoed this noting that women who have made it to the top, often went to all-girls schools. Johnson also acknowledged this problem and highlighted the steering group he has set up to specifically address the issue of a lack of women in research leadership looking at systemic problems such as lower grant success rate.
You can watch a full recording of the 'in-conversation' discussion below:
The discussion touched on many other topics and was creatively depicted by Dr Jess Wade!
Professor Graeme Reid, CaSE Chair, closed the event expressing our genuine thanks to all those who made the event, and indeed CaSE’s 30 years, possible. In particular, all of us at CaSE want to thank members for their support of CaSE – none of our work would be possible without you. So thank you
Thank you, too, to all our speakers, sponsors, and the audience for contributing to a wonderful discussion and debate, which continued late into the evening over a glass of wine!
Happy 30 years CaSE – here’s to 30 more!
Our 30th Anniversary booklet - produced in association with the event