Events / Policy

Young scientists represent the Geological Society at Houses of Parliament

On Tuesday 12th March, six representatives of the Geological Society were lucky enough to head down to the House of Commons in Westminster to quiz MPs on topics relating to science and policy for Voice of the Future 2019. On the same day MPs voted on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, Parliament was busy with early career researchers excited to engage with the politicians on important topics including research funding, career security, the environment, climate change, technological advancements and the impact of Brexit on the science sector. Our Policy and Outreach Intern, Megan O’Donnell, writes about her experience.

In Committee Room 14 of the House of Commons, around 200 scientists sit in anticipation on green leather chairs embossed with the golden crowned portcullis of the UK Houses of Parliament. We eagerly await the arrival of the chair and members of the Science and Technology Committee invited to respond to questions posed by scientists and researchers from the learned societies and professional organisations. This completely unique event is designed to mirror a ‘select committee hearing’ where the committee asks questions of invited experts – however, today the roles are reversed, with the MPs expected to answer questions posed by the young scientists. While we wait, we are informed that the Government’s attorney general will be offering legal advice on the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement nearby. An exciting day to be in Parliament, and it’s not even 9:00am!

Representatives of the Geological Society put forward questions on gender diversity in senior science roles, the economic value of science, climate change and environmental policy, the integration of scientists with the public and private sector, and many more. Luckily, two of the questions submitted to the organisers were selected to be asked on the day.

There were four question sessions, each fielded by a different panel, and alternating representatives from differing subjects sat near the front of the committee room to ask questions and witness responses. The first panel was made up of the chair and members of the HoC Science and Technology Committee – Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrat), Stephen Metcalfe (Conservative), Carol Monaghan (Scottish National Party), and Vicky Ford (Conservative).

The event was opened by the Vice-President of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, Dr Stephen Benn, and the Speaker of the House, Rt Hon John Bercow, appealing to the attendees to seize their chance to speak up and integrate with politics. The room was ready for the call to action, and did not hesitate in the gates when the questioning began. The panel were first asked what they expected to be the most important topics for science in 2019, with Brexit impacts, increased spending on research and development, climate change, population and demographic change, and the digital revolution among the topics raised.

Following tough questions on levels of public trust amidst fake-news, increasing engagement with science, balancing the needs of now with future generations, and issues of mental health amongst young people, I asked the panel about the potential effects of the Government’s Immigration White Paper on scientists and engineers. The proposed White Paper has implications for British and foreign geoscientists working in Britain and abroad following Brexit. It was reassuring to hear unanimous support from the panel for amendments to this bill in relation to the salary related skills cap and for enabling ease of movement and international collaboration for the strength of the science and engineering sector overall.

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Megan O’Donnell, Policy and Outreach Intern at the Geological Society, asks the Science and Technology Committee about the Immigration White Paper. You can hear the question and answer on Parliament TV here.

The Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA), Sir Patrick Vallance, was asked by our representative Catherine Mottram how we can maintain a balance between sustainability and technological development when considering critical Earth resources needed for renewable technologies and other decarbonisation initiatives.

He highlighted that our demand for Earth’s resources is set to increase with our requirement for more and more advanced technology, e.g. renewable energy and batteries. Some of these resources are not naturally present in the UK, therefore we must consider the sustainability of not only the supply chain but also the ethical, political and moral considerations that must be made when sourcing these materials in the long term.

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Catherine Mottram, Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, asks about rare earth elements and their role in decarbonisation. You can hear the question and answer on Parliament TV here.

I particularly enjoyed hearing the variety of questions posed by the representatives at the event from all the difference STEM sectors. The event was attended by impressively engaged, confident, and articulate young scientists ready to engage with politicians on subjects they know are important to the wider population. VOF offered a unique opportunity to engage with experienced politicians, and consider with a new perspective the role that STEM research plays in society.

I asked the attendees for their thoughts after the event…

Why did you want to attend Voice of the Future?

Sarah Fowler, University of Bristol – “There is increasing urgency surrounding issues relevant to Earth science—energy, the environment, climate change, waste disposal, and resource availability, for example. Decisions related to these issues have consequences for public health and safety and the economy. I wanted to find out what sort of people in Government are responsible for formulating science-related policy and what informs their thinking. I wanted them to know that people who care about science are listening and care that they make informed decisions.”

What impact has the event had on you?

Catherine Mottram, University of Portsmouth – “It has made me inspired to pester my MP more about the issues impacting UK science today. I am also interested in learning more about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making government science policy.”

What will you remember?

Sian Evans, Imperial College London – “I was staggered by the breadth of scientific knowledge of the politicians who answered questions on everything from the use of natural resources, to the spread of infectious diseases, to the lack of diversity in STEM careers, and of course the impact of Brexit on the international community. I now have a much clearer vision of the political landscape shaping scientific research in the UK. I will endeavour to maintain an active role in science policy and would highly recommend the event to other early career scientists.”

What was the most interesting thing you discovered?

Chris Holdsworth, University of Glasgow – “[The event] demonstrated that there is an appetite in Westminster for more input from those with a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical background.”

Is there anything about the event that surprised you?

Jennifer Richards, University of Oxford – “It was interesting to see how party politics, and the vote on the Brexit deal that evening, played into how the panel answered questions with some obvious disagreements emerging between parties.”

  • Voice of the Future is organised by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the science and engineering community – found out more here. 

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