Parliamentary Links Day: Bringing scientists and parliamentarians together
In the words of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, “Parliamentary Links day is an opportunity to link science from outside with the members of both houses”.
Parliamentary Links Day brings together academic societies across the science and engineering disciplines with parliamentarians, and this year’s theme was UK Science and Global Opportunities. The day consisted of keynote speakers and panel discussions along this theme. This was the first year that the British Ecological Society was an official partner organisation for this event.
The role of UK Research & Innovation
Sir John Kingman, soon to be the chair of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), emphasised the importance of the continuity provided by the reappointment of Jo Johnson as Minister for Universities and Science and Greg Clark as the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Jo Johnson described the £6 billion investment (to reach £8 billion in 4 years) by the Government in research and development (R&D) as “big potatoes”. He pointed to the creation of UKRI which will oversee this budget and give strategic oversight to R&D in the UK from April next year.
He also acknowledged that there is more work to do. He accepted that there had been underinvestment by previous governments and outlined the Government’s commitment to reach the OECD average on R&D spending over 10 years. He described the challenges of addressing the economic and productivity imbalances across the country and how they broadly mirror levels of R&D spending. He also accepted that while the UK is second in the world in terms of research (1% of the global population generating 16% of all citations) the UK needs to improve in commercialising research. This is why UKRI’s remit is to support excellent science that also provides economic opportunities. The Government needs to ensure that its view of economic opportunities includes the protection and enhancement of natural capital to deliver sustainable economic growth. Understanding and accounting for the value of nature could provide an opportunity to develop a competitive edge to the UK’s knowledge economy. There is also a need to invest in developing and testing new business models and innovative approaches to develop these opportunities.
Discussing the challenges provided by Brexit was unavoidable. Chi Onwurah, the Labour Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science & Innovation, emphasised that the success of an “innovation nation” relies on the free flow of people and ideas. Professor Roberto Di Lauro, Science Attaché at the Embassy of Italy, presented the results of an opinion survey completed by Italian scientists in the UK which suggested that 82% are considering leaving post-Brexit. Further survey results presented by Dr Lorenzo Melchor, Science Attaché at the Embassy of Spain, suggested there was a general lack of understanding about Spanish scientists’ status in the UK and uncertainty about their plans for the future. Whether the Prime Minister’s announcement on the status of EU citizens in the UK will address these concerns remains to be seen. A question from an attendee highlighted the lack of clarity about the status of UK scientists working in the EU.
The next generation of scientists
As well as the importance of continuing to attract the best global talent, the discussions highlighted the importance of encouraging the development of more home grown scientists. Dr Sarah Main, Director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) explained how this ambition was likely to fall outside Jo Johnson’s remit and requires a cross departmental strategy for fostering interest in science among young people. Professor Jocelyn Bell Barnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), emphasised how important it was to get parents interested in science and how important it was to have a “science champion” dedicated teacher leading science in primary schools.
Stephen Metcalfe MP, former Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology, finished off the day distilling the science priorities for Brexit; Funding and People. He suggested that ensuring that the Department for Exiting the European Union had a Chief Scientific Advisor may go some way to ensuring that UK science is seen as a priority at the negotiation table. Time will only tell…
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