Opinion: Science is ‘just solving puzzles’ – unless we engage with the big issues

Posted on May 27, 2014   by Scott Nicholson

In March, SGM supported members Scott Nicholson and Izzy Webb to attend Voice of the Future in Parliament. Here, Scott blogs about how the experience inspired him and gives us his thoughts on why scientists need to engage with policymakers.

Earlier in the year, I attended the Society of Biology’s Voice of the Future event, hosted by the House of Commons, Science and Technology Committee. It was held as part of National Science and Engineering Week with the aim of giving early-career researchers the opportunity to question Sir Mark Walport, the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Science and Technology Select Committee and the Science Minister David Willetts MP.

This year was the second time that I had attended the event that once again got the attending scientists enthused about the role they can play in government policy making, and gave them the knowledge on how they might go about it. I was very pleased to hear Andrew Miller MP, the Select Committee’s Chair, encouraging the scientists in the room to write to their MPs. He highlighted the importance of scientific research and also the need for scientists to engage in official consultations, such as those issued by the Science and Technology committee.

I have responded to such consultations myself on a number of occasions and I would recommend it to scientists at all stages of their careers. If we want politicians to have a good understanding of important issues such as antimicrobial resistance or sexually transmitted infections, and we want research funding to be a government priority, we have to make our case.

Events like Voice of the Future remind us how important it is for us to do something with science. I can remember once being at a conference in which it was stated in the opening speech that our aim should be to reduce health inequalities. The weekend of presentations followed and then in the concluding speech, a professor reminded the audience that we must seek to apply our research.

Involvement in government policy can allow us to use our expert knowledge to influence policy makers, to bring about a positive. If we do not engage in this way, we are just solving puzzles.

Izzy Webb has also written about her experiences of the event. You can read them here.

The Society funded a number of other early-career researchers to attend the Voice of the Future in 2013. We caught up with them to see what they’ve been up to since the event.

Ben Bleasdale: I am now into the thesis-writing phase of my PhD, and have spent the last three months on an internship at the Academy of Medical Sciences, supported by funding from the Medical Research Council. Working in the Academy has given me the chance to see how science feeds into policy and how the public, private and charity sectors work together to promote UK science.

Alison Graham: I have had a very busy year developing my teaching and taking on new modules. I have been part of a team looking at using electronic marking to improve feedback and involve students in the marking process. We presented our findings at Newcastle University’s Learning and Teaching Conference in June. We were also able to secure funding from the Higher Education Academy to host a workshop on assessment and student dialogue at Newcastle University in November. Other than teaching, I have also been taking part in some outreach events; I was a judge at the Big Bang Fair NE and I have just delivered my first A-level workshop on gene technology.

Leena Nieminen: After last year’s Voice of the Future event I really put my head down and concentrated on getting results from my first postdoc project. This has now paid off as I recently presented my results at the Society’s conference in Liverpool. I have also secured a further three-year postdoc position at the University of Strathclyde to continue my research from last year.