Parliamentary Links Day 2015

Posted on July 15, 2015   by Arikana Massiah

A few weeks ago, the Society attended Parliamentary Links Day 2015, an event organised by the Society of Biology that brings together researchers, learned societies and parliamentarians. We went along with some of our members, one of whom is Arikana Massiah, a Society Champion and pre-registration Clinical Microbiologist at Barts Health NHS Trust. Arikana blogged her thoughts about the event for us.

Arriving at the Links Day, I was immediately struck by how well attended the event was by both scientists and parliamentarians. The researchers at the event ranged from early career scientists through to senior researchers, representing a variety of science backgrounds. I was proud to see so many scientists gathered in the same room, eager to discuss important science policy issues.

The day started with the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP, emphasising the importance of science to Britain’s growing economy and explaining how scientists can influence science policy.

Chi Onwurah MP was second on the podium, motivating scientists to continue advocating for increases in funding and improvement of education in science and engineering. There was something very personal when she asked all female scientists in the room to identify themselves by show of hand and wished us all a happy National Women in Engineering Day – again, another proud moment. She went on to encourage all scientists to engage with politics as, unfortunately, there are very few parliamentarians with a scientific background (the numbers have actually decreased in the new Parliament).

Jo Johnson MP, the newly appointed Minister of State for Universities and Science, echoed these sentiments and called for more scientists in the House of Commons.

The momentum was carried through to the first session entitled, The National Value of Science. On the panel was the Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, who encouraged all political parties in the new parliament to work together on science policy. He also explained that not having a science background should not prevent MPs from campaigning for research and it is mostly up to us, the scientists, to highlight the science parliamentarians need to be aware of. He went on to speak about how improvements in the science education system are long overdue, suggesting that extending the Maths and Science curriculum to all pupils until age 18 would help more students achieve degree level skills in science and engineering. I couldn’t agree more but clearly this will take lots of planning to achieve. Perhaps we just need to be better organised with the current curriculum and encourage more students to study Maths and Science at Higher Education level?

Also on the panel was Sarah Hartwell-Naguib, Head of the Science and Environment section of the House of Commons Library, who is tasked with advising MPs on issues regarding research. Through her section, scientists can send publications that will be curated and used to brief MPs.

All-in-all, the first session was a promising start and gave me the confidence that, at the very least, both scientists and parliamentarians are on the same page: science is important and it needs more funding if we are to benefit from it.

The final session of the day focused on the international value of science. It was good to hear Dr James Larkin, a Consultant Oncologist at The Royal Marsden Hospital, championing the work that research and development contributes to the success he sees in his patients. He also emphasised how the NHS is fundamental to this success. As an NHS employee myself, it was rather encouraging to hear someone champion the value and contribution of the NHS to science, and the nation as a whole.

All the speakers in this session managed to ignite a sense of national and self-pride amongst the scientists and did a good job of making us feel valued. However, for me, none of them did a better job than Professor Chris Whitty, a physician and epidemiologist who also happens to be the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for International Development. Perhaps I am biased as a microbiologist, but hearing that UK science discovery has resulted in a 50% decrease in malaria deaths in Africa in the last five years was great news. But it’s not just research that matters. I have many friends and colleagues who have gone out to help the international community in times of need, and it is their skill in science and technology that makes them valuable citizens of the world. The UK has been at the forefront of the response to the Ebola outbreak, and in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquakes, where UK seismologists helped advise their Nepalese colleagues.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan FRS, Nobel Laureate and incoming President of the Royal Society, gave the closing speech at the event. He addressed several issues that hinder growth in science and engineering but at the same time acknowledged the achievements that UK research has made. I particularly like his call for improved immigration and education policies that would encourage an influx of scientists into the country. Sir Venki highlighted how science is crucial to maintain the advanced society status that Great Britain has, enabling us to help not just ourselves, but other citizens of the world too. This advancement is, however, limited by the salary element of the UK immigration system, and the turmoil in the EU that may discriminate against overseas research scientists. As an immigrant and a female scientist myself, I could not help but strongly agree.

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Overall, Parliamentary Links Day was filled with inspirational speeches that instilled hope in the future of science in the UK. I left the room both confident that research policy is in the right hands and motivated to do more for science because of the immediate benefit to both our country and the world at large. However, I could not help but wonder if the same attitudes will be duplicated at next year’s Parliamentary Links Day and the next… Without much changing in reality. Either way, I did not linger too long on this thought as it was time for the House of Lords luncheon!