Parliamentary Links day 2017: UK science and global opportunities

01 November 2017 - By: Jonathan Smith and Zoë Lonsdale

Parliamentary Links day 2017: UK science and global opportunities

Links Day
Panel discussion. Pallab Ghosh (BBC Science Correspondent) and Parliamentary Links day panel Photo: Royal Society of Biology


By Jonathan Smith and Zoë Lonsdale

Science in the UK is going through an unprecedented time of uncertainty, with both recent political instability and the challenges of Brexit after the triggering of Article 50 this year. Amid this concerning tide of events, how can UK science stay at the forefront of global research and innovation?

This question was on the minds of representatives attending this year’s Parliamentary Links Day, an annual gathering of Members of Parliament and representatives of learned scientific societies. Organised by the Royal Society of Biology and packed with attendees, this year’s Links Day addressed the theme “UK Science and Global Opportunities”.

Over the day, distinguished politicians, scientists and other experts took part in panel discussions, offering their advice and answering concerns voiced by academic and industrial representatives. The four main topics this year were the financial state of publicly-funded science, the effects of Brexit on international collaborations and the influx of talented workers, and finally the importance of science education and outreach to UK industry and research.

UK spending on science: how much and where?

Since the recent election, the UK government is placing more emphasis on science. Sir John Kingman KCB, Chair Designate of the upcoming UK Research Institute (UKRI), outlined the current government’s pledge to increase its science budget from 1.7% to 2.4% of the UK Gross Domestic Product within 10 years. “This time last year we were considered radical for suggesting this increase in the face of pressure on government spending”, said Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Dr Sarah Main. Sir John Kingman detailed the role of the new UKRI in managing these increased funds, and encouraged the attendees by saying: “You too must think about how we can best spend these resources”.

Minister for Universities, Research, Science and Innovation, Jo Johnson MP, followed on by stating that the UK cannot become complacent with its excellent research track record: “A massive 16% of citations come from the UK’s 1% of the world’s population; we are genuinely world class”, he noted. “However, there are areas we still need to improve on with regards to our competitors including addressing regional imbalances in research output, increasing capital science funding to the level of global competitor nations and better commercialisation of scientific advances in the UK”.

Brexit: implications for European collaborations

“It is important to show that the UK is open for business”, enthused Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. This sentiment, aimed to counter fears of the UK withdrawing from industrial collaborations in the EU after Brexit, was echoed throughout the day’s discussions. “To demonstrate this openness”, added Chris Hale of Universities UK, “we need to secure the UK’s commitment to collaboration frameworks with other EU countries such as Horizon 2020, and keep up this commitment in future projects”.

Political representatives were keen to reassure attendees that the UK is still in the game. Jo Johnson and Sir John Kingman stressed that the UKRI and government are working with “ferocious intensity” to prevent any adverse effects of Brexit on international collaborations. Furthermore, Jo Johnson announced the government’s ongoing support post-Brexit for the Joint European Torus (JET) project, the focal point of the European nuclear fusion research programme. “Although Brexit may bring its challenges, we are leaving the EU, not Europe,” asserted Stephen Metcalfe MP, Former Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee.

Keeping skilled worker immigration

With Brexit looming, another concerning trend is that talented workers from the EU – which include 17% of the UK academic workforce, according to Chris Hale – are reconsidering whether to work in the UK. Dr Lorenzo Melchor and Professor Roberto di Lauro, Science Attachés of the Embassies of Spain and Italy, respectively, voiced their concerns over how many UK-based academics from their countries now feel unwelcome. It was clear that reassuring EU scientists of their employment rights in the UK should be a priority.

“We are an innovation nation, and innovation depends on the free flow of ideas and people”, stated Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Her comment helped demonstrate the motivation of policy makers to keep talent from overseas inside the UK post-Brexit and recognition of the need for more voters to understand our dependence on skilled migrants: “Seventy-five percent of people who voted in the referendum see no problem with skilled immigration to the UK”, said Stephen Metcalfe. “We have to work with the remaining 25% to convince them of the benefits to this country.”

Young people and UK science

“Without a talent pipeline for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, we won’t have a future”, lamented the audience, pointing to the lack of STEM engagement with young people, with a resultant skills shortage in the UK. Chair of Engineering UK, Malcolm Brinded, compounded this sentiment by saying,“Of the 500,000 young people choosing A-levels per year, only 30,000 choose to study maths or physics.” This skills shortage indicates a pressing need for better engagement in STEM subjects.

Many possible solutions were discussed for addressing the issue: “The purpose of the old is to encourage the young”, asserted Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP, who has helped local schools to raise money to modernise their science facilities. Dr Sarah Main suggested improving teacher confidence in STEM subjects and nominating one teacher per primary school as an official STEM engagement coordinator. Dr Elizabeth Bell, in the audience representing the UK National Commission for UNESCO, advocated that scientists appeal to the aspirations of young people, saying: “By choosing STEM subjects, they will save the world from crises such as global climate change and health issues!”

Futures interlinked

Throughout the Links Day, the overall feeling was one of cautious optimism. Political representatives emphasised their dedication to nurturing UK science, and honouring collaborations with the EU. Skilled workers from the EU and the rest of the world remain welcome in the UK amidst the uncertainty following the Brexit vote. Furthermore, the UK needs a talent pipeline; engaging the young in the science journey is vital. No matter the outcome of Brexit and other issues, Stephen Metcalfe argued that the UK has a vision for its research ecosystem: “A vision that will deliver the UK’s ambition to tackle and solve some of the greatest problems our world faces.”

 

Category: SEB+
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Jonathan Smith and Zoë Lonsdale

Jonathan Smith served as the SEB’s press intern for the annual meeting in summer 2016, and has since contributed articles for the SEB’s bulletin. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Bristol, he is currently studying for a PhD in locust neurobiology in the University of Leicester and runs an active Twitter account communicating his work.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/j_ivories

Zoe is a PhD student at the University of Leicester who studies whole genome sequencing data to search for patterns of imprinting in the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris. She uses a combination of RNA-sequencing and bisulphite sequencing to determine gene expression patterns and potential associated epigenetic mechanisms (i.e. DNA methylation, alternative splicing). This will lead to a better understanding of the genetics of eusocial insects and the evolutionary theory elucidating why imprinting first evolved.