As part of National Science and Engineering Week 2012, young scientists were today given the chance to question Ministers and Members of Parliament on the future of science and engineering in the UK at a meeting organised by the Society of Biology. The innovative event followed the structure of a select committee hearing in which Parliament Ministers ordinarily question stakeholder witnesses in order to gather evidence on an issue. However, today it was the Ministers answering the questions, which were posed by young representatives from a range of societies and institutions.
In the first of three panels, Rt Hon David Willets MP, Minister for Universities and Science, and Professor John Perkins CBE FREng, Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills addressed questions on science in politics, science funding, and education and careers. The second session saw members of the Science and Technology Committee discussing the status of science as well as the role and functioning of the Committee. Finally, Chi Onurwah, Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science gave input on a number of science-policy issues.
Science and Policy Making
One of the major messages to come from the meeting was that there is an increasing awareness amongst Ministers of the need for scientific evidence in policy making; Mr Willetts MP identified that the Code of Conduct now contains explicit protection for scientific advice in policy debates and Prof Perkins said he has observed that science is increasingly ‘permeating’ the policy process. However, the point was made that politicians make their final decisions based on democratic vote, rather than a ‘technocratic’ decision based purely on science and therefore improved dialogue between scientists, policymakers and the public is critical to ensure voters are well informed about contemporary scientific issues.
The role of Learned Societies, such as the British Ecological Society, was identified as key in developing policy as there are very few scientists or engineers in government. Fostering relationships with Chief Scientific Advisers was suggested as an effective route of engagement between the Societies and Government, as well as the maintenance of quality events, publications and communications by Societies.
Science Education and Careers
Science education and careers was a significant focus of all three sessions. Mr Willetts MP suggested the news was generally positive with science subjects all back in the ‘top 10’ for A-level choices. However, a lack of practical experiments in the classroom was identified as a significant issue, a conclusion recently made by the Science and Technology Committee in a recent report. Ministers cited Health and Safety concerns as a major barrier as well as a lack of equipment and teacher training. It was suggested that one solution is better collaboration between schools and universities as a way to share resources and attract greater funding from Research Councils.
In order to increase interest in science as a subject, several panel members identified a need for significant improvements to careers advice services, including better promotion of the range of career options available to scientists. Ambassadors in schools, targeted events, and improved representation of science in the media were seen as effective ways to engage young people in science. A need to foster a real passion and curiosity for science, particularly at an early age, was seen as a priority and the current ‘spoon feeding’ approach of science curriculums identified as ineffective in achieving this.
A Precedent for Future Events?
The event was very well attended by young scientists from a broad range of institutions and societies and at the end of the sessions, Ministers voiced their appreciation for the opportunity to hear from some of the scientists and engineers of the future. Stephen Benn of the Society of Biology closed the meeting by thanking all those involved and voiced a hope that today’s event sets a precedent for further interactions between policy makers and young scientists in the future.