Parliamentary Links Day 2019, 25th June 2019
“Science and the New Frontiers”
Parliamentary Links Day brings together scientists, science societies and MPs to discuss the future of science in the UK. The annual event is organised by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the science and technology community and has a different theme each year. This year’s theme was “Science and the New Frontiers” and I attended on behalf of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists.
The morning’s schedule was busy, with two panels discussing this year’s theme and three keynote speakers.
Parliamentary Links Day 2019 was opened by the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. Mr Bercow said that science and technology have a vital role to play in schools, in life and in Parliament. We need advocates in Parliament who take science seriously, and people who promote the link between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and policymakers.
Recognising that there will be changes and challenges in the coming period, Mr Bercow emphasised the need to maintain the European activities we participate in and benefit from. For this, we must remain open to international talent and collaboration.
The first keynote speaker was Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy. She highlighted the current UK spend on R&D at 1.7% of GDP , against the average spend in Europe of 2.4%. She said Labour has pledged to increase UK R&D spend to 3% of GDP by 2030 and has also committed to improving diversity in STEM careers.
Professor Molly Stevens, Imperial College London and The Royal Society of Chemistry, stressed that multi-disciplinary teams are important for diversity and links to the international community. Her team includes 27 different nationalities, developing affordable and accessible point of care tests for earlier detection of infectious diseases.
Professor Sanjeev Gupta, Imperial College London and The Geological Society, explained the importance of geoscience for our knowledge and future. He showed the audience an incredible 3D printed model of the “eyes” of the Mars Rover, which was developed and made in the UK. The Rover uses these “eyes” to decide where to drill into rock formations, searching for evidence of life.
Professor Philip Calder, The Nutrition Society, emphasised the importance of diet in contributing to healthy ageing. The WHO says old age starts at 65, which includes 18% of the UK population, almost 12 million people. This places an enormous burden on the health and social systems and families. Understanding, easing and improving the ageing process is therefore vital.
Professor Emma Bunce, University of Leicester and the Royal Astronomical Society, said that UK academics are world leaders in blue sky scientific research and building the technology needed to help understand our universe. We need to inspire young STEM students to maintain a diverse and inclusive talent pool.
Dr Richard Amos, Institute of Physics, talked about the major developments in proton beam therapy in the UK, which will bring the benefits of new technology to 1,500 cancer patients per year, most of them pediatric.
The second keynote speaker was the Rt Hon Sir Norman Lamb MP, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. Explaining that there are no easy solutions to complex problems, he said that collaborations between policymakers and scientists are crucial. Only rational policymaking and the application of evidence can address the challenges we face, and the science community plays a central role in this.
Sharon Todd, Society of Chemical Industry, wants to take our current Industrial strategy forward with more intensity and ambition. We must build an innovative psychology and focus on the translation of science into industry for the benefit of society.
Professor Stephen Harridge, King’s College London and The Physiological Society, discussed the importance of physiology for lifelong health. We must change our perceptions about ageing, not seeing it as a disease or medicalising it. If physical activity were a drug we would be talking about it as the “wonder drug” to tackle ageing.
Dr Sarah Main, Campaign for Science and Engineering, said the top request from business and corporations is to have a well-funded academic research environment. She called on the Government to create a vision and plan with an associated budget to attract global interest.
William Hardie, Royal Society of Edinburgh, stressed the importance of providing impartial, evidence-based information to policymakers and committees. This evidence reveals the options, implications and consequences of different pathways.
Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, advised that rigour and excellence in research is vital in developing a strong evidence base for science, technology and policymaking.
The final keynote speaker was Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.
He said we must move away from the polarising idea of Brexit, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. He is pushing Government for a significant settlement for science in the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review and says they must ensure continued access to programmes such as Horizon post-Brexit. He recommends the UK follow countries like Germany in creating a long term, “depoliticised” plan for science which guarantees funding over a period of 10 years.