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A-levels … are they fit for purpose?

On Tuesday 15 July, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee held a discussion meeting to consider the poignant question ‘A-levels – Are they fit for purpose?’ If the last 10 months are anything to go by, it is fair to say that most stakeholders from the education, scientific and industrial community would unanimously agree, no. The majority would also cite the structure and curriculum content of A-levels as two key reasons why. However, it is evident from the widespread response to the science A-level reforms, which are to be implemented in 2015 that opinions remain divided on what should be done about this.

The Committee received three addresses from Ofqual, UK Deans of Science and CasE, who also attended the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee in May, to consider ‘How practical are the new science A-level reforms? Other Committee members included representatives from schools, Further and Higher Education (HE), as well as other learned societies.

Contrary to the issues which have dominated education policy this year, Dr Michelle Meadows, the new Director of Research and Evaluation at Ofqual, reported that in the past ten years there has been a steady and growing confidence in A-level performance. In 2012, Ofqual found 80% of surveyed stakeholders, which include parents, schools, HE representatives and employers, had confidence in A-levels. Nonetheless, this was not without serious discourse about the curriculum content and structure of A-levels.

Following the ‘modularisation’ of A-levels in 2000, there were concerns they had become less demanding as universities reported the majority of students were performing well. This resulted in another review in 2008 and a ‘de-modularisation’ of A-levels from 6 to 4 units. Open ended questions and greater synopticity was introduced to help make A-levels more challenging. However, HE representatives and employers continue to report that students lack real in-depth understanding of subject knowledge, independent inquiry and critical thinking skills, all of which can also be associated with the re-sitting culture which has developed over recent years. On average, 43% A-level students have re-sat at least 1 unit, and 25% have re-sat 2 or more units.

As a result, Ofqual are confident that the new reforms including the removal of January exams this year, is a step in the right direction towards the linear A-level qualifications in 2015. With all assessments to be sat in the summer term, more time will be available for teaching. Although Ofqual’s remit does not cover approving the curriculum of A-levels, Dr Meadows reported HE representatives are now more involved than ever before. Every A-level has 60% core content of which there is standardised Maths content for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; 10%, 20% and 40% respectively.

Controversially, the separation of the practical skills component from the theoretical content for Biology A-level remains open to debate. Dr Meadows reported that the separate endorsement will help resolve problems like predictable assessments, lack of evidence and marks not truly reflecting a student’s ability. As students are expected to complete a minimum of 12 practicals, Ofqual are working with the awarding bodies to develop a series of evidence gathering tools such as student logbooks. Dr Meadows concluded stating Ofqual is committed to its ongoing research on the impact of teaching on learning. This will prove detrimental to measuring the impact of these reforms on educational outcomes.

Professor Ian Haines, the Executive Secretary of the UK Deans of Science then looked toward the success of Ireland and Scotland which offer a broader education system and generally produce more able students in comparison to England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Professor Haines made several recommendations which he believed would help make A-levels more fit for purpose. This included having a broader education system for 18 year olds, such as the Scottish International Baccalaureate, introducing compulsory STEM subjects up to the age of 18 and teaching students about the overlap between traditional disciplines.

Upon considering the new science A-level reforms, Professor Haines went onto recommend that having one awarding body and making vocational qualifications as acceptable as academic qualifications, would help make science A-levels fit for purpose. Decoupling the theoretical content from the practical skills, which will be assessed separately from 2015 onwards, sends the wrong message to schools. A ‘pass or fail’ connotes a devaluing of the practicals and is likely to have serious implications on the educational outcomes of students in schools particularly where resources and funding are limited.

The concerns raised by Professor Haines were echoed by Dr Sarah Main, Chief Executive Officer at CaSE, which is the leading independent advocate for science and engineering in the UK. Industry is seeking to employ people who are competent in their knowledge and understanding, as well as their practical ability. Research shows that the UK needs to double the number of engineers by 2020 to keep abreast of the skills shortage gap, which it is currently falling short of.

Dr Main stressed that the recent reforms will hinder efforts to maintain curiosity in  STEM. This includes the national network of Science Learning Centres, a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust and the Department for Education, and the more recent YourLife Campaign launched by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Students need to have rich practical experience throughout school to university to meet the needs of academia and industry. Taking practical assessments is more than just about producing reliable results, but should be valid and must take place in a relevant setting too. Dr Main concluded that the science A-level reforms were not fit for purpose and recommended stability in education policy, compulsory STEM up to the age of 18 and a stronger, better connected community of teachers, scientists and engineers as the best way forward.


Posted in BIS, Education, Education Policy, Parliament, Science and Technology Committee, UK | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Breaking down the ballast water problem

Last month at the Biodiversity APPG  we heard from Dr Tom Vance of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, where he has been working on solutions to the problems of ballast water with Tim Fileman. The topic generated a lot of discussion, so what are the problems with ballast water? Or perhaps the first question is ‘what is ballast water?’ Though clearly important, the issue seems to have snuck out of the limelight, as many marine environmental issues do. In this post we’ll give you an overview of the ballast water contamination and explain what the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) are trying to do about it.

When ships dock their cargo at a port, they have to take on vast amounts of sea water to maintain their stability, which is then dumped at the next destination. Historically, ships used to take on ballast in the form of sand, but this is likely to have transported many non-native plants over here in the past. The potential of sea water ballast to carry non-native organisms from far away countries poses a very real threat and the control measures that have been put in place to date just aren’t enough, Tom informed us.

Apparently a container can carry 100,000 m2 ballast water, which can contain a shocking 10, 000 species, from bacteria and viruses to crabs and fish. This was responsible for an outbreak of cholera in Peru in the 1990s. Known invasive non-native species carried by ballast water include the carpet sea squirt, forming a physical barrier on the sea floor to native grazing fish, and the comb jelly, a voracious predator. With new ports and trade routes being created, this is becoming an increasing problem not just for its capacity to spread invasives but also for the effect it can have on the gene pool and adaptability of populations.

Current methods of ballast water control are treatment, by killing all organisms with chlorine, UV treatment, mechanical filtration and offshore exchange. Offshore exchange is thought to reduce the risk of species transfer as the deeper waters are usually less rich in biodiversity than the coastal water. However, Tom points out, it’s still quite possible that a ship could take in millions of detrimental bacteria from an offshore algal bloom. Solid ballast can be used and there are plans for a global network of ‘ballast containers’, however as cargo ships are currently well equipped for pumping ballast water, this is the most economical mechanism.

In the UK,  the political responsibility for addressing this problem falls not with Defra (responsible for the UK invasive non-native strategy) but with the Maritime and Coastguard  Agency. There is no target species list for marine invasives,  In the recent non-natives strategy review, ballast water control was dropped from regulation. So is the UK taking this problem seriously?

40 countries have joined the IMO Ballast Water Management (BWM)Convention) which has laid out guidelines for the treatment of ballast water. However these guidelines are not currently enforced, as the IMO BWM Convention has not yet been ratified. Although enough countries have joined more countries with large shipping tonnage are needed to ratify the Convention; 30 countries and 35% of world gross tonnage are needed in total. It’s countries with really large tonnage, like Singapore that will be needed to reach 35%. The UK is one of the countries that have not joined the Convention, because the government does not believe that the methods are there that will allow them to police the regulations, Tim Fileman explained. However the IMO have provided a feasible policing procedure, Tim added: Port State Officials would check paper work and and the BWM system is in place and only as a last resort would need to take a water sample.

The issue of ballast must be looked at jointly with bio-fouling, which accounts for at least as many marine invasive species and could otherwise negate any positive impact. The IMO have produced guidelines  for reducing biofouling, but it is unlikely that these are implemented regularly. Some countries around the world are taking these problems much more seriously, for example Australia will turn ships away if they don’t think appropriate systems are in place.

This issue of ballast water which has been brought up in the recent discussions on invasive species regulations highlights the antiquity of the shipping industry. To implement the big changes that are needed in technological design of ships, that would not only reduce their ecological footprint but would also increase their efficiency, a big behaviour shift is needed. Most ships still burn bunker fuel, a crude and incredibly polluting oil. It’s doubtful that we would allow this sort of practice on land, so why do we allow it at sea? Marine invasive species ought to be taken just as seriously as their terrestrial counterparts, especially amidst concerns that our marine habitats are being significantly degraded.

There are many challenges in treating the water successfully whether they be economical, political or practical, says Tim, however: “This is a risk reduction exercise at the end of the day and, currently, we are doing very little to reduce that risk…very slowly the shipping industry is being dragged into the 21st century and forced to consider its environmental impact.”

Posted in Biodiversity Strategy, Invasive Species, Marine, UK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Policy, biodiversity, and conservation – join us in Edinburgh in October

Together with the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy’s Science and Technical Group and CIEEM, the BES and its Scottish Policy Group will be holding a one-day conference on 3 October 2014 at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The event will be looking at the role of monitoring and data collection in meeting the major technical and scientific challenges that arise from the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.

Questions that will be considered include:

  • How can we better monitor the wide range of species and habitats that we need to protect as well as ecosystem services and natural capital?
  • How do we define success?
  • What new technologies and approaches are available to us?
  • What challenges do new technologies and approaches bring to researchers, policy makers and conservation practitioners?

The conference will begin with a lecture by Professor Bill Sutherland (University of Cambridge; BES president) at the Botanic Garden on the evening of 2 October.

To complement the topic of the conference and allow researchers and practitioners to understand the policy environment in Scotland, we will also be holding an ‘introduction to policy in Scotland’ event on 2 October at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Attendees will be able to learn more about how scientific evidence can feed into policy making through individuals from Scottish Government and agencies, and researchers who are actively engaged in the process.

Booking is now open – students and members of the BES and CIEEM are able to book both days at a discounted price.

All those who register to attend the introduction to policy day will receive a 50% discount on the cost of attending the conference.

More information about both days can be found on our website.

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Is more funding the answer to preventing future flood disasters?

After the severe floods of last winter, flood prevention has been pushed high up the agenda. After a two month period of evidence gathering, a report on the inquiry into the 2013-2014 winter floods was published in June by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The report highlights the need to put policies in place to provide funding and support for homes, farmland and business when they are threatened by floods. However the emphasis is on prevention and the maintenance of flood defence systems, not simply the actions  that must be taken when floods hit peoples’ doorsteps.

In the BES 2013 report on the impact of extreme events, such as flooding, which you can read more about in a past blog post, highlighted the increasing need to invest in natural flood management rather than hard engineering techniques, and sustainable drainage systems in urban areas that can help relieve surface run-off.  In this report from the Committee there is no exploration of the potential of natural flood defences to play a big role in mitigating against flooding. Instead, dredging is still the key focus, despite recognising that this is only one of a portfolio of measures.  They identify cuts in funding, resulting in a lapse in maintenance of dredged watercourses, as one of the major causes of the 2013-2014 floods.  As well as inadequate funding, they say there has been in the past a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the maintenance of certain waterways, whether it be the Environment Agency, Defra, or riparian landowners.

There is a big economic impact from flooding; it is reported that the winter storms caused about £135 million worth of damage to flood defences. However, the Committee’s report claims that the flood defense maintenance budget has been pushed to a “bare minimum” which could result in higher costs further down the line if events like last winters recur.

Internal drainage boards exist in many districts where there is a risk of flooding, and the report suggests they should be empowered to undertake maintenance works on main rivers. In order to reflect local circumstances, the report proposes that local people should be given more say in how funding is spent in relation to dredging. But with water catchments that span across multiple districts and counties, should such decisions be made on a local scale, by potentially uninformed individuals? Surely there is a role here for science to play in providing sound evidence from relevant research into the most effective long term mitigation strategy.

The CIWEM produced a report in February during the inquiry in which they commented on dredging: “Dredging can play an important role in flood risk management in some cases, but is not a standalone solution. It should be considered in the context of a range of tools and the origins of different sources of flood water, and comes with significant risks that must be understood at a local and catchment scale.

Whilst the report recognises that there are “risks associated with dredging, including  exacerbating downstream flooding by increasing the water flow and causing significant environmental impacts such as loss and degradation of natural habitats”, disappointingly there is no attempt to identify other more sustainable options.

Posted in Agriculture, Defra, Flooding, Parliament, Select Committee, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The birds and the bees – both suffering from pesticide pollution

The ban of neonicotinoids last December may not have gone far enough to prevent damaging effects to the environment. The pesticides were put under restrictive use for three years whilst research was conducted into their ecological impact. Just 7 months in and the evidence against their use is mounting, to add to the pile, two new studies were published this week.

A paper published in the BES Journal of Functional Ecology has found that the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, impairs foraging behaviour of the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris. Richard Gill and Nigel Raine of Royal Holloway University used Radio-Frequency Identification to track the bees’ movements. Whilst defendants of neonicotinoids insist that that the pesticides are not lethal to pollinators at the levels used, studies like these are important in demonstrating behavioural impacts that can affect the success and survival of bumblebees. Exposure to imidacloprid decreased foraging behaviour efficiency, with bees bringing back smaller pollen loads to the hive, and foraging more frequently in an attempt to compensate for this. Imidacloprid-exposed bees were also unable to exhibit any experience-based improvement in their foraging activity as the control bees did.

Insect pollinators are responsible for the pollination of about 75% of agricultural crops, so the economic importance of the ecosystem service they provide does not go unnoticed. Defra’s consultation for a National Pollinator Strategy  is now closed, but it looked at addressing research gaps in the impacts of pesticides, climate change and invasive species on pollinators.  This new strategy is due to be published this summer. In 2009 nine research projects were jointly funded £10million by the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership as part of the Insect Pollinators Initiative.

Another study, published in Nature from Hans de Kroon in the Netherlands, found pollution of the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, to be the main cause in the decline of farmland birds. Whilst lots of research has focused on the impact on insects, in particular pollinating insects, this study reveals the cascading effects as the toxin moves up the food chain and the impact of pollution in water. At imidacloprid concentrations of more than 20 nanograms per litre, insectivorous bird populations tended to decline by 3.5 per cent on average annually. The potential impacts on other insectivores are implied but yet to be investigated. This study in the Netherlands was conducted over 7 years and so Kroon and colleagues were able to examine the long term changes and look at multiple possible causes in bird population declines. The UK has not collected data on neonicotinoid pollution and so we can only draw assumptions about the whether imidacloprid has impacted our own farmland bird populations similarly. This highlights the importance of funding long-term studies in the UK, which BES has called for in its response to BIS’s recent consultation ‘Creating the Future: a 2020 vision for science and research’.

The current EU regulation only targets three neonicotinoids, and only bans their use on certain crops. Many hope that compelling evidence like this will make Defra reconsider the way these pesticides are used in the UK.

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem Services, Insects, Natural Capital Initiative, Pesticides, Pollinators | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The implications of new invasive species EU regulations

Earlier this year, in the hope of encouraging a more cohesive approach to tackling the problems of Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS), changes to the EU regulations were agreed. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity met last week to discuss the implications of the new regulations for the UK, including new legislation and the next steps.

Carles Carboneras, Species Policy Officer for the RSPB, gave an overview of the new EU legislation. The EU landscape has 5% coverage of non-native species, largely terrestrial plants, but not all of these are considered invasive. The cost of controlling INNS is much cheaper early on, when a species has not yet established. Once it has established the price of control increases massively, in some cases beyond the scope of feasibility. The example of Japanese knotweed demonstrates this, as the cost of eradication now would be disproportionately expensive. Successfully eradicating knotweed from the Olympic park cost £70 million and took several years. With already well-established species, the emphasis is on control rather than eradication.

Lists of species of concern can be proposed by member states, scientific fora and the European Commission. Proposed INNS go through a risk assessment before being added to the EU list of species of concern and it is then banned to transport the species between EU countries. There are surveillance systems in place to watch the movement of invasive species, or in the case of hitch-hikers the pathways the organisms take are determined. As soon as they are detected, new species must be notified to member states and appropriate eradication measures must be taken.  EU states are recommended to have a published national list of non-natives, as we do in the UK, which feeds into regional cooperation agreements. One issue that was raised by various stakeholders at the meeting was that although a UK invasive species list exists, it can not be easily found anywhere. In 2021 there will be a full scale review of the species list and an assessment of the application of the new regulations.

The UK government is among those countries that have been pushing for this new EU strategy, Trevor Salmon of Defra informs us. In current legislation, Section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states that it is an offence to release non-native species into the wild. This includes any species that has been forced to extinction several hundred years ago or more.

In the review of the UK 2008 INNS strategy, Trevor adds, there is a strong focus on prevention and on targeting the most appropriate species, to avoid wasting resources on benign species. The new improved EU strategy should be less fragmented and more consistent between member states. It also makes it easier to tackle problems before they reach us in the UK, for example Asian hornets, which have already reached France.

Changes to the current system include the 1)prohibition of keeping any of most invasive species, 2)restoration of damaged land where INNSs have recently been eradicated, 3) cost recovery achieved by fining advocators if it can be proved that they were at fault, and 4) surveillance to allow early detection.

New EU legislation will come into force 1st Jan 2015 and when species are added to the EU list of species of concern, it becomes law immediately. Before then UK border forces need to be empowered to inspect for these species, and penalties and sanctions need to be established. Permissive legislation for ex situ conservation and study will likely be based on CITES recommendations. Additionally there needs to be effective management and monitoring of species on the list that aren’t yet in the UK.

The problem with current UK legislation is if landowners refuse to cooperate in controlling invasive species, there is no legislation to make them take action. The Law Commission, as requested by Environmental Audit Committee, has produced practical proposals for a law reform on the issue of invasive species led by Nicholas Paines QC, Law Commissioner. After an initial consultation in 2012, the proposals that came out of the report have now been passed through the House of Lords, and are awaiting a decision from the House of Commons. Under new legislation, species control orders could be issued to uncooperative landowners by the Environment Agency. There would usually be a required 42 days of negotiation before the issue of an order, but this would be waived in the case of an emergency.

Marine non-native species aren’t often put under the spotlight; in fact the legislation in this area is relatively weak. The obligation of shipping industries to manage the dumping of ship ballast water at ports was dropped from the new EU regulation. Dr Tom Vance from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory talked about the increasing problem  of ballast water in the transportation of species between countries.  Large ships must take in ballast sea water when they dock their cargo, but organisms ranging in size from microscopic algae to crabs and fish are also taken in and then released at the next destination. The UK currently has not taken a position on this issue and have not yet joined the International Maritime Organisation’s Ballast Water Management Convention, which would work to reduce risk if ratified.

Posted in 2020 Biodiversity Target, Aquatic Ecology, Biodiversity, EU, Invasive Species, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

PolicyNet: Knowledge and skills for science and engineering policy

Much still needs to be done to bridge the gap between scientists and policy makers. Differences in language and timescales can create artificial boundaries and lead to problems when communicating. Understanding the skills that both scientists and policy professionals should have to help them communicate and understand knowledge, evidence and expertise is vital for enabling good working relationships between the two sectors. A PolicyNet event – knowledge and skills for science and engineering policy to discuss this was held by the Royal Academy of Engineering last week.

Last week’s event was held in partnership with UCL’s new Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), which is currently developing two new MPA programmes – Science and Public Policy and Engineering and Public Policy – launching in September this year. Chaired by Dr Alan Walker, Head of Policy at the Royal Academy of Engineering, members of the panel each considered the following question developed by STEaPP:

“What do you think is the single most important thing a scientist, engineer or policy professional should learn to help them successfully bring knowledge, evidence and expertise to policy?”

The role of the Government Office for Science (GO Science) in bringing together scientists and engineers across the civil service was introduced by Giles Robertson, Private Secretary to Professor Sir Mark Walport. For scientists to be successful in communicating with policy makers, Giles highlighted that scientists must learn to be relevant. Framing your work, and answering the questions posed by government, rather than something you think is more important, are both key. To achieve this, you must also understand your audience. Knowing their level of expertise and background will help scientists to effectively present their evidence in a relevant and timely way.

The need to understand your audience was echoed by Dr Jason Blackstock from STEaPP at UCL. As part of the team developing the new MPA programmes, Jason voiced the potential challenges this may bring for teaching. Ensuring individuals leave the programme with knowledge of who to contact, and what they require will be key. Jason highlighted the role that experiential learning might play, with students tackling real-life problems at a number of organisations.

Andrew Crudgington, Director of External Affairs and Strategy at the Institution of Civil Engineers reflected on his experience in policy at the Institution to address STEaPP’s question. Andrew referred to a recent piece by Giles Wilkes, the former special adviser to Vince Cable, to highlight his understanding of the policy making environment in the UK. Talking about the disparate nature of Westminster, Wilkes wrote in the Financial Times at the beginning of this month – “There are only the departments – 20 or so disparate organisations, peopled by stubbornly uncommunicative officials, each with its own direction of travel and prone to colliding with the others”. Scientists who interact with policy need to understand that policy making is not linear, and is usually an iterative process.

Andrew highlighted the need for scientists to be a critical friend, to take part in policy processes, and to provide expertise. There may not always be an audience available when you are first ready with information, but if you embed yourself in the process, you will be able to push through information when there is a window of opportunity. In Andrew’s experience, it was vital for the Institution of Civil Engineers to have panels of experts for mobilisation when needed by Government, and to make VIPs available for Ministers when required.

In addition to learning to understand the needs of policy makers, Professor Lord Robert Winston, vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), highlighted that scientists need to listen more – to policy makers, to the media, and to the public. Understanding and listening to the media/policy reception to a particular issue will help scientists reframe arguments and address concerns that may be unfounded. Social science is critical to understanding public perception to policy, and understanding public perception is critical in launched policies. Without public consent, there may not be any action.

There was consensus among the panel that for scientists and engineers to successfully bring knowledge, evidence and expertise to policy, they need to understand their audience and be able to frame their evidence in the right way. Understanding the processes of policy is vital, and policy professionals need to have experience of dealing with unexpected changes, where timing is key. Following on from the policy makers’ example of engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, scientists need to make sure they engage with those in other disciplines to understand the impact of particular policy outcomes.

For more tips for engaging and communicating with policy makers, see our ‘top 10 tips’ guide, which was generated from a policy training workshop the BES held in April this year.

Posted in Event, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Royal Academy of Engineering, Science, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discussing public trust in science: Parliamentary Links Day 2014

At this year’s Parliamentary Links Day, MPs, scientists and media representatives were asked how to tackle the problem of science and public trust. This stimulated discussion on issues such as data privacy, media relations, and engagement.

The first thing to establish: has there actually been an increase in public mistrust in science? Julian Huppert MP, kicked off the discussions by suggesting that whilst science used to be one of the most highly trusted, and unquestioned professions, that this is no longer the case. However, there seemed to be a general consensus that there was not a ‘crisis in trust’. James Wilsdon of the Science Policy Research Unit referred to Onora O’Neill’s speech on trust in which she declares that there is little evidence for mistrust. Instead there is evidence for a culture of suspicion. Opinion polls show that those considered least trustworthy 20 years ago are still the same groups as today: politicians and journalists, whilst university scientists are very heavily trusted . Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, added that opinion polls don’t necessarily reveal everything about the current overall levels of trust, and perhaps there has been an overall decline in the levels of trust in all areas. It is suggested that there has been a diminishing trust in police and armed force and perhaps losing trust in these areas makes the public more wary and questioning of other activities. Whether or not there is diminishing public trust, James highlighted that “trust must be a two way street, not something demanded by the powerful of the powerless”.

The accessibility of data to the public has potential to affect level of trust and Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor, drew out three key aspects to data privacy encryption, access and legislation. Terry Lyons from the Council for the Mathematical Sciences believes data encryption plays an important role in public trust. But which data should be made available to the public and which should be protected, is not clearly regulated enough.  Nicola Gilley, editorial director at IOP publishing, explained that whilst there are systems in place to increase scientists’ trust in science such as peer review processes and plagiarism checks, these processes are not necessarily understood by the general public.  Scientists should think about how to communicate their work to a wider audience when publishing, because, Sir Mark adds, trust is undermined by lack of engagement by science community in politics, media and the public.

The subject of engagement was built upon in the second panel discussion, led by the five rules for public engagement from Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre. She appealed to scientist to be open and honest about their work, not overselling it and admitting to uncertainties. She also spoke of her experience of the difficulty of encouraging scientific experts to speak up during times of public emergencies, when their advice and opinion is needed more than ever. Pallab Ghosh, BBC Science Correspondent, was also aware of this fear to speak out when their views conflict with government initiatives. He recently published an article on Professor Tim Coulson’s post on the Journal of Animal Ecology’s blog, declaring that Defra are wilfully ignoring scientists on the issue of the badger cull and bovine TB.

Many of the speakers spoke of the importance of distinguishing policy for science (i.e. governmental funding) and science for policy (i.e. provisioning of evidence). James suggested that due to this “messy boundary”, scientists don’t always understand that although they may be well informed to comment on the science of an issue, they may have little or no place commenting on the political or social impacts of a decision, and are really there to help politicians navigate through the evidence.

Sir Mark lamented this point in his keynote address, as he believes scientists must understand that ultimately public policy decides. Science needs to listen to the needs of government as much as the other way round, helped by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) which helps translate science for parliamentary need.

Sir Mark believes that we tend to view trust as an all or nothing thing but in fact it is very context specific. When scientists talk about contentious issues the level of trust changes. As an example of poor communication, he drew upon examples from the recent controversial fracking proposals, claiming that that those fighting against it are not doing so on a scientific basis but have instead created a reactive up rise in the media that is not addressing any of the scientific concerns (such as earthquake tremors and contamination of aquifers), but is instead based on the fact that they don’t like fossil fuels, they don’t like big companies and they don’t want it happening in their own back yard. To avoid these situations and increase trust, discussions between, government, parliament, the scientific community and the general public must be facilitated.

Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister for Universities, proudly launched the Labour Green Paper on science and innovation policy, which is open to comment until 1 August. This follows on from comes two years on from Julian Huppert’s Liberal Democrat science paper.

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, concluded the event, and said that scientists need to be available in public debates to find out which aspects of an issue might need clarification for the public. This prevents polarisation of debates. With climate change, extremist views dominate; many say it’s not happening at all and many others say it will bring on dire catastrophes imminently. He calls for the need of specialists to contribute to policy but also generalists who understand wider landscape and scientific policy.

Hopefully many of the attendees walked away feeling that there is a place for science in policy, and by improving communication and engagement, public trust in science and in scientists can be maintained.

Posted in Event, Parliament, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Science Funding, Science Policy | Leave a comment

JNCC seeking two independent members

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is looking for two new independent members to join the Committee from November onwards. More information is available below, and application forms are available on the Cabinet Office website. The closing date for applications has been extended to 11th July at 6pm.

JNCC members are currently paid £9836 per annum for 2.5 days per month. Appointments are usually for up to three years.

Further information (from JNCC):

JNCC is a public body which advises the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland on UK-wide and international nature conservation.

Independent members of the Joint Committee contribute to the Committee’s work in providing UK Government and the Devolved Administrations with effective support for their evidence needs and policies for nature conservation across the UK and internationally. Independent members need to understand the natural environment and its vital importance to everyone including its contribution to achieving better outcomes for the economy and for society on a sustainable basis. 

They need to promote a positive and constructive relationship with everyone that works with the JNCC including Defra, the UK country nature conservation bodies, Devolved Administrations, other Government Departments, EU institutions, UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and a wide range of non-government organisations and other interest groups both within the UK and internationally. 

Candidates should be able to demonstrate the following:

1. Experience in, or scientific knowledge of nature conservation in a field relevant to JNCC (e.g. natural and social sciences);
2. The ability to provide technical advice and offer oversight in the scientific aspects of the work of JNCC;
3. The ability to contribute to the strategic development of JNCC’s work through the management and interpretation of evidence to support advice to government and other customers and to ensure that JNCC delivers good value for money to the taxpayer;
4. The ability to carry out financial governance and the work of an audit or similar committee in the private, public or voluntary sector.

Posted in Defra, UK | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Developing the next generation of scientists and engineers by consolidating efforts in education, business and industry

The Westminster Higher Education Forum connects policymakers in Parliament, Whitehall and government agencies with key stakeholders to discuss topical matters. Earlier this month, the BES attended the seminar which considered issues concerning the next generation of scientists and engineers. Here are some highlights…

Professor John Perkins, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) kicked off the seminar by looking at engineering skills in the UK. Reflecting on the Review of Engineering Skills (November 2013), Professor Perkins reported that the skills shortage would impact the government’s ability to deliver its industrial strategy. One of many positive responses to the report has been from the Royal Academy of Engineering who have devised four specialist Finish and Task Groups to consider the review’s 22 recommendations. He emphasised the significance of a collective effort from stakeholders in business, industry, and education, coming together as a community to consolidate initiatives like Tomorrow’s Engineers driving inspiration, and the employer-led Trailblazer Apprenticeships which value alternative, work-based routes into engineering.

The seminar then went onto consider the current provision of STEM in schools, from the school curriculum, to practical lessons, teaching and careers advice.  Professor Louise Archer, from the ASPIRES Project reported findings from the five year survey where 19, 000 school children across the UK were interviewed at ages 10/11, and then again at 13/14. A positive finding was that the majority of young people are interested in science. However, this interest does not translate into them wanting a career in science, with most students opting for a career in business instead which is the most gender, ethnic and class equal of all career aspirations. However, the report did find the greater a young person’s ‘Science Capital’ – knowledge, resources, contacts in STEM – the more likely they are to aspire to a career in STEM. Professor Archer urged for greater promotion of the transferrable skills students acquire from studying science, whether or not they do actually pursue a career in it – they should keep their options open for as long as possible.

Tim Bowker, the Head of Physics at Bodmin College in Cornwall successfully demonstrated the different ways to encourage STEM in schools; from STEM club, to university trips, peer mentoring and collaborating on research projects with partners like Flybe and the Marine Biological Association of the UK. He emphasised the significance of setting up structures in schools so students and teachers can harness inspiration and opportunities into action for the long term.

Never too far from most talks concerning Higher Education is the issue of tuition fees, highlighting the important influence of policy on funding and educational outcomes. Interestingly, Lis Edwards from Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the regulator and funder for Higher Education in England, reported that they have managed to protect and maintain the levels of high cost funding for lab based subjects in 2014/15, despite an overall cut in the teaching funding available. What is more, there is support for growth from BIS that is expected in the next year, £185m coming over the next four years from 2015/16, with additional capital funding in 2015/16. Questions do remain around barriers to further growth in higher education and how the upturn of STEM in school is carried forward beyond further education, which HEFCE are keen to explore.

According to Melanie Radford from the University Technical College (UTC) Cambridge, the UTC movement looks promising for closing the STEM skills gap in the UK. She emphasised that aside from the more obvious funding issues, it is important that all issues are identified and understood in order for them to be closed. As well as encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers, there is a need to support disadvantaged youth diagnosed with disabilities and B/C GCSE grade students who are passionate about science. UTC Cambridge have longer school days and school year, and are currently mapping the curriculum to STEM employer led challenge projects through strong industry partnerships which should ensure students are better placed to achieve the necessary qualifications to study STEM subjects at university.

At postgraduate level, the new government backed centres for Doctoral Training Providers (DTPs), is envisioned to help meet the needs of STEM graduates in industry and academia too. At each centre there will be small cohorts of approximately 10 students per year on a four year doctorate course. There is an expectation of original research, a broadening skill set, and enhanced technical knowledge embedded within a research area of the university, which would need to be identified as a priority area through consultation with industry and business too. We are pleased to announce the BES has a number of bespoke training courses available to PhD students at UK institutions that are part of the new NERC DTPs. Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council expects around 5,000 innovative and internationally competitive students to be trained through the DTP process. Having already leveraged extra funding from industry, this initiative demonstrates the endless possibilities which can come about through connecting industry and academia.

A common theme which ran throughout the seminar was the call for continued efforts to connect and maintain links between education, industry and business. Professor Perkins reported that the time constraints associated with the STEM supply system are over ten years, so strongly recommended interested stakeholders continue to take collective action.  Only then will the progress made within and across these sectors take effect, and challenge these long standing issues at a national level.

We are keen to hear your view on issues concerning the STEM skills gap and issues affecting the current and future generation of scientists and engineers in the UK. Share your opinions by tweeting us at @BES_careers.

Posted in BIS, Education, Education Policy, Equality and Diversity, Government, Science Policy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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