Future Voices

Last week, about 160 early-career scientists from a wide range of disciplines met with members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. The meeting took place in the splendid surrounding of the Geological Society and Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) headquarters in central London. The delegates, from industrial and academic backgrounds and as far afield as St. Andrews and Belfast, had the opportunity to raise their concerns with the science policy makers.

The group, called Voice of the Future, was organised by the RSC, a learned and professional society dedicated to the chemical sciences, which regularly briefs members of both Houses on scientific issues relating to chemistry. But the last time it held such an event, at which younger scientists had the opportunity to express their views, was 4 years ago.

The session took the form of a Science Question Time, in which the scientists quizzed the policy makers on their views. Whether or not they had all the answers became clearer as the morning progressed.

The panellists...

Opening the proceedings, the committee's chair, Dr. Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North and formerly dean of biology at the University of East Anglia, established that he and the other panel members shared a fairly comprehensive understanding of their audience. He explained that the Select Committee is committed to doing everything both "inside and outside Parliament to raise the profile of science and technology and to tackle some of the key issues that need public and parliamentary attention". He acknowledged that traditionally, there is a culture of mistrust between politicians and scientists as, unfortunately, MPs want "black-and-white answers" to their questions. However, through events such as the Royal Society of Chemistry's annual Parliament Links Day, at which MPs and Peers can hear briefings on current scientific issues, this is being addressed.

The first question came from Dr. George Fern, a lecturer in the School of Chemical and Life Sciences at the University of Greenwich. It concerned the latest controversial round of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Given the large number of 5 and 5* departments identified, he asked the panel, how is the government going to promote young scientists to enable them to achieve the international reputations and publication records that will enable them become the future leaders of such departments?

...are put on the spot

Dr. Brian Iddon (MP for Bolton SE) took the question and acknowledged that there had been a lot of "collateral damage" as a result of the RAE, a lowering of morale, and a loss of experience from departments. The committee was, he said, examining the suggestion by the Association of University Teachers that money should be made available to 'kick-start' young scientists' careers and enable wounded departments to build on their successes before the next assessment, which may not take place for another 7 to 10 years. The RAE is an expensive exercise; to enable the scientific community to get value for money, it may be prudent to wait a couple of years longer than the usual 5-year cycle before conducting another.

The issue of retention of early-career scientists was a major theme of the day. It was discussed from the angle of the public perception of science, scientific training and the low take-up of scientific disciplines in school, and the financial rewards that career scientists receive in this country.

Dr. Louise Cramer, a research fellow in the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London, wanted to know what action was being taken to address discrimination against women in science.

The group was told that the government is actively promoting the allocation and take-up of paternity leave, so that the imbalance between men and women is addressed, along with the misconception that there is a trade-off between excellence and equality. Although there were many specific issues that pertained to women in science, the importance of breaking down science stereotypes and providing role models for future generations was generally voiced. In a culture where most school-age children can name England's football players, how many would be able to name a leading British scientist?

The latter part of the debate was given over to the burning issue of salaries (should leading British scientists command the same salaries as footballers?) and the 'brain drain'. Dr. Richard Parsons, a research fellow in the department of medicine at the University of Birmingham, described to the panel how he supervises four Ph.D. students, juggles his own research and teaching commitments, and earns "less than a branch manager at McDonald's". With tuition fees now levied at undergraduate level and Ph.D. studentships set at varying degrees of competitiveness, the Select Committee members were asked whether the government had considered writing off student debt in a scheme similar to that in place for science and mathematics graduates entering the teaching profession. In true political style, the question was not exactly answered ... but the meeting's chair took pains to reassure the group that it was "pushing an open door".

So, was it a worthwhile experience? Cramer--like many others--felt that although it was "easy to identify the questions", she had been "reassured but not informed" at the conclusion of the meeting. Dr. James Bruce, a lecturer in the department of chemistry at the Open University, was also comforted that the Select Committee understood "where we were coming from" but got the distinct impression that "their hands were tied". Committee chair Gibson, meanwhile, described it as "refreshing" to listen to the questions and said it reminded the Select Committee of what was important to scientists today.

Although it would be fair to say that not many answers were given, both organisers and delegates alike felt that the day was helpful and that an event of such relevance should be held more regularly.

Currently, only one member of the cabinet and 50 MPs hold a science degree. So maybe it is up to us, the young scientists. Maybe we need to think about what we are giving to society. How can we improve our image? I think that the organisation Voice of the Future is a step in the right direction. By strengthening links among universities, industry, learned societies, and the community, together we can promote greater understanding of one another and the issues we all face.

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