This month I was selected to represent the Society of General Microbiology at an event called Voice of the Future (VOF). This is an annual event (in its third year) which gives young scientists the chance to directly engage with the policy makers making decisions today. It is organised by the Society of Biology along with several other learned societies who invite their members to get involved. I have been particularly interested in science policy since I began my PhD a year and a half ago, so this was a great chance to get involved and do something more than just reading articles, ranting to my friends and tweeting. It was also a nice chance to meet other students with interests in science policy – like Scott Nicholson who was my fellow representative for the SGM.
Voice of the Future is an event that takes itself seriously, and so as a participant you feel like you get taken seriously too. The event takes place at Portcullis House, a part of the Houses of Parliament, in the Boothroyd room where Select Committees actually meet. We had an introduction from the Speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow MP), and there were Clerks present to inform us of all the rules that would be upheld in a normal Select Committee meeting. It was commented more than once that VOF is probably the only event of its kind in the world – the only event where the roles are completely reversed and the would-be witnesses get a chance to switch places with the committee members.
And the policy makers that we were questioning weren’t minor players in the policy world either; they all play a major role in Science Policy and Parliament. The event was split into four sessions, each with prominent policy makers for us to fire questions at. The first session featured Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Officer. Next, we had a panel of MPs who all sit on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Having this panel was brilliant, because it meant that there was some discord and debate in answering the questions, rather than a single answer. It also allowed us a representation from all three major political parties. Our next two sessions aimed questions at David Willetts MP, the UK Minister for Science and Universities and his Shadow equivalent, Liam Byrne MP. It was an incredible honour to be able to have these people here – especially considering that the 2014 Budget was being revealed that afternoon – so for them to take time out of their busy schedule was fantastic.
Each student submitted a question as part of the application for the event. These questions were then moderated and rewritten in a form that was suitable for the Select Committee setting. These questions were then re-distributed at the event. Unfortunately, time limitations meant that not everyone was able to ask a question, and some didn’t get to ask the question that they had submitted. I was one of the lucky ones who were able to ask their own question – something I was very happy about. If time, the Chair also allowed questions sent in via twitter, to allow people a chance to get involved who couldn’t attend the event.
The questions asked at the event covered a multitude of aspects of science policy – ranging from science funding to controversial topics such as nuclear power. Some stand-out questions for me included asking whether we should be extending tuition fees to cover Masters degrees, and the impact that Scottish independence could have on their research funding. A common theme was also the importance of ensuring that young people are motivated to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. It was interesting to listen to the speakers try and weigh up the arguments within their answers and give a fair answer.
I asked the following question:
“Genetically modified crops have massive potential for agriculture and improving the quality of food we eat. Considering these genetically modified crops undergo far more stringent safety testing than conventionally bred crops, why is this technology still being held back by regulations?”
GM is a topic that is particularly close to my heart – I have spoken about it many times at science fairs and events, and the John Innes Centre where I work is at the forefront of GM research and technologies. My question came up in session two, which had a panel of MPs from the Science and Technology Select Committee. This was great, because the committee was able to give me a spectrum of answers from different political viewpoints and backgrounds (including a past Minister for Agriculture). One of the recurring themes of their answer was the upcoming report that the committee is compiling about GM – it is one of the current hot topics in the science world. They are gathering evidence, and wanted to emphasise that anyone can submit this evidence – even members of the public or a PhD student like me. The MPs tended towards being in favour of GM technology and the potential that it has for UK agriculture. They hope that gathering evidence for this will provide incentive for the government to start thinking about changes in our current regulation. This does require a change in public perception though. One MP, David Heath, referenced the “Frankenstein Foods hangover”, something that some newspapers still like to bring up to scaremonger people about GM. However, much of our restriction is due to EU legislation. Some EU states like Spain are similar to the UK in hoping that GM may be grown one day in their country. Other states, like Germany, are completely unmoving in their stance on GM. GM is a good example of a policy situation where an asymmetric approach may be the way forward for EU decision makers.
I could go on for pages and pages about all the fantastic and interesting questions asked by the students, as well as the responses from the politicians which always provided a great insight into that area of policy. The entire event was fascinating from start to end, and it was an amazing experience to be a part of it. Perhaps in the future other events might be run with other Select Committees, or other countries in the world might even catch on to the idea. If the event was this good in the third year of it being run, I can only imagine how far this event might go in years to come. I certainly will be investigating attending again next year – and coming up with another question to fire at the politicians. I would recommend any other students with an interest in science policy, or anyone who’d like to know more about it to come along and do the same.
I’d also just like to give a big thanks to the Society of General Microbiology for inviting me along and giving me the chance to get involved, as well as all the other hardworking people from Parliament and the learned societies who made the event possible. Particular recognition has to go to Stephen Benn, the Director of Parliamentary Affairs at the Society of Biology – who is the person who really made this event possible.
If you are more interested in this event, you can find more information and a live stream from these links:
http://t.co/3J5S7l3eej (spot me at 1:13:58 and hear my question and its answer)
By Izzy Webb, a second year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole