13th March 2018, review by Lucy Teece & Stephen Blaxand (YSS)
The Royal Society of Biology’s annual Voice of the Future event offers students and early-career scientists the opportunity to question key political figures about important scientific issues. YSS committee members, Lucy Teece and Stephen Blaxland, represented the Royal Statistical Society at this year’s event held in the Houses of Parliament during British Science Week.
Throughout the morning a multitude of questions, raised by representatives from a wide range of scientific societies, organisations, and local high schools, were answered by the newly-appointed Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation (Sam Gyimah MP), the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science & Innovation (Chi Onwurah MP), members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (Martin Whitfield MP, Stephen Metcalfe MP, and Carol Monaghan MP), and the director of the Government Office for Science (Dr Rupert Lewis).
Diversity in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) careers was a recurrent theme of the questions asked, and prompted discussions around the under-representation of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) researchers; the gender pay gap and ‘leaky pipeline’ producing a gender imbalance in high-level positions; and barriers preventing those from communities of low socioeconomic status from pursuing careers in STEMM subjects. The political figures present acknowledged the strength in diversity and communicated their commitment to encourage equal representation across both academia and industry. Chi Onwurah MP, who has a degree in Electrical Engineering, described the need for strong female and minority role models and leaders to inspire and support those seeking STEMM careers. Balance in STEMM subjects requires enthusiastic role models to reach out to students and spark an interest in these subjects at an early age, and to promote the exciting and rewarding careers available to those who study STEMM subjects.
This unique event evidenced a commitment by parliament to seriously consider the challenges faced by the younger generation of scientists and displays a willingness by the politicians present at the event to build and maintain a constructive dialogue with career-young scientists.
Sitting in the Horseshoe next to John Bercow with his radiant tie was a surreal experience. He opened the event with a passionate speech about the importance of MPs to communicate with scientists and take data-driven decisions.
More than 500 questions were sent to the event organiser’s steering committee, 40 were chosen, the primary focus was on Brexit and the importance of diversity in the workforce. There were some more esoteric questions on developing legislation for biohacking (when someone ‘hacks’ their genetics), especially as altering genomes would influence not just the hacker but also their future generations.
For me, Chi Onwurah stole the show with thoughtful responses about distributed ledger systems and how the government could develop legislation to encourage new technologies to the improtance of increasing diversity. It was very impressive to see these politicians spending time to understand and answer a diverse set of topics. At the end of the day I left feeling humbled that these MPs spent time to answer and collaborate with the scientific community. Let us hope that the UK will continue to push forward this important collaboration.
A full video of this years’ Voice of the Future event is available on Parliament TV Live.