By Jack Eardley
The Voice of the Future presents a unique opportunity to turn the tables on MPs and ask them questions at a select committee style event. The annual meeting invites members of a broad range of scientific disciplines – including representation from Durham University – to question MPs and Government advisors about science based policy. Questions this year ranged from general topics including Brexit, higher education, and research funding, right down to more specific issues including university start-ups, graphene technology, and the Trump Presidency’s worrying obsession with “alternative facts.”
This year’s event featured the Shadow Secretary for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation Chi Onwurah; Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport; Government Minister for Universities, Science, and Research and Innovation Jo Johnson and the Science and Technology Select Committee.
The answers given were focussed and informative but with occasional reminders that we were in Westminster when contentious political issues found their way into the session. Chi Onwurah scolded the Chancellor’s unravelling budget just as Philip Hammond was in the commons chamber over the road, reversing his position on changes to National Insurance.
Answering research funding concerns, Jo Johnson emphasised the Government’s increased investment in research and development (R&D), marking the greatest increase in real terms spending in 40 years. Brexit cast a shadow over much of the event with many questions targeting its potential negative impact on the scientific community, many of these fears were however quenched by the Minister. The final question to Johnson requested an explanation of the positive impacts of Brexit on British science. This appeared more challenging, and although Jo Johnson’s reply stressed the opportunities Brexit presented for international collaboration, it was difficult to grasp his point knowing that the European Union places no restrictions or inhibitions on such collaboration anyway.
Chi Onwurah confirmed her support for freedom of movement and the benefits it provides the scientific community. She spoke personally and passionately about the importance of encouraging girls to achieve in and enjoy mathematics, and the need to increase mathematical fluency throughout the country.
The event reassured those attending that at a time when noises coming from politicians around the globe can often sound meaningless or foolish, scientists and experts are still valued by democracy and Government. Voice of the Future was helpful in demonstrating how important research and development are to Government policy and that there is still a need for scientists to join the ranks of politicians. I would encourage other Durham students with an interest in scientific policy and the broader societal impact of their work to attend in the future.
Photograph: Creative Commons