The significance of using science to inform public policy is well-established and as such it is hoped that evidence-based policy should become mainstream. However from a policy makers’ perspective, views of the public still have an important role. There has been much debate about how best to wrestle this interplay between evidence produced by experts and public opinion. Key debates where public opinion and scientific evidence have clashed include the understanding of climate science, the development of genetically modified crops and the badger cull to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis.
As a researcher, I am interested in how the findings I make will impact on policy. As such, back in March, I decided to apply for the Voice of the Future event  organised by the Royal Society of Biology for the benefit of the science and engineering community.
Voice of Future
The event aims to provide a platform for early career researchers (ECRs) to engage with key policy makers, predominantly MPs. Many learned societies were present at the event and I attended representing the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB). Hosted in the Boothroyd room of Portcullis House, the meeting sees the traditional format of a Parliamentary Select Committee reversed. A panel of ECRs sit around the famous horseshoe to quiz senior figures in Parliament and Government about their burning policy issues.
The event was introduced by speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow who is coincidently the chancellor of the University of Essex and structured as four panels:
- Sam Gyimah, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation
- Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
- Members of the Science and Technology Select Committee
- Rupert Lewis representing the Chief Scientific Adviser
Prior to the day, participants had submitted questions to ask each panel, which had been whittled down by the Royal Society of Biology team. Of those submitted, unsurprisingly most concerned how Brexit would affect the scientific community and the prospects of ECRs. Other topics discussed included how can the government improve the job security of ECRs, how does the government keep up with new technologies and how can we improve the identification of ‘fake news’. I was able to sit on two panels and ask a question that I had submitted:
- The UK is one of the largest recipients of research funding from the European Union. How does the UK plan to maintain science funding in co-operation with Europe after Brexit?
What did I learn?
I learnt many things from attending this event that I hadn’t necessarily thought of prior to the day. I took part hoping to discover how research outputs influence policy decisions and to further understand the future of scientific collaboration with the EU post-Brexit. As a scientist, I believe in evidence-based decision making. However, what was emphasised on the day was that purely making this choice on evidence alone will not always lead to a successful outcome. The public either need to be convinced that the evidence based decision is appropriate or that the public opinion needs to factored in.
The need for funding for pure science was also stressed as of paramount importance. In the media and across research councils, there is an emphasis on science with applications (e.g. medical, agricultural). However all panels recognised that today’s fundamental science will become applied science and so there must an impetus to fund this type of research.
Science and policy
Events such as Voice of the Future give ECRs the opportunity to experience the heart of British politics at the beginning of their careers. The opportunity to interact with policy makers helps one understand how the scientific research that occurs in institutions across the country informs the latest policy decisions. Stephen Benn, the chair of the event, summed up the significance of the event well:
- “It is important that policy makers use reliable evidence in their decisions, and today’s young scientists and engineers will be vital for this in the future.“
If you want to learn more:
- Royal Society of Biology. 2018. Voice of the Future 2018. Retrieved from https://www.rsb.org.uk/policy/policy-events/voice-of-the-future.