Lockdown haircuts (or the lack thereof), disruptive pets and young scientists grilling MPs on their sofas made for an engaging and thought provoking Voice of the Future (VOF) event.
I attended the VOF on 10 March 2021 as a member of the audience representing the Young Statistician Section (YSS) of the Royal Statistical Society. The event is organised by the Royal Society of Biology (RSB), and the attendees represent significant UK scientific bodies. It provides the opportunity for career young scientists to pose challenging questions and discuss important issues with senior members of government regarding science policy in the UK.
What was clear throughout was that everyone had a true passion for science and innovation and the questions raised difficult and challenging issues that require a diversity of opinions to help solve them. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed science to the forefront of government policy and there was plenty of discussion on the long-term impact on society and the road to recovery.
The individuals that stood to take questions were:
- Amanda Solloway MP, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation
- Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Digital
- Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Advisor
- House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee members:
- Rt Hon Greg Clark MP
- Carol Monaghan MP
- Dawn Butler MP
- Katherine Fletcher MP
Sir Patrick Vallance, now a well-known figure, thanks to regular TV appearances alongside Boris Johnson, challenged the community of academia, industry and government to learn from the coronavirus pandemic. Through real collaboration and information sharing, he stated that we can achieve what was previously thought impossible. He remarked on the fact that prior to the pandemic, the fastest vaccine development took six years. In the last 12 months, multiple vaccines have been developed, which left him to ponder how this vital work could expand to other diseases.
Chi Onwurah MP provided advice on how we can combat vaccine hesitancy, so that this crucial scientific discovery is most effective. Some ideas can help such as vaccinations at local pharmacies, and trusted public figures speaking about its importance. She spoke about tackling the issue of misinformation on social media, and addressing the lack of diverse representation in science.
Dr Emma Bailey of the Council of Mathematical Sciences asked Amanda Solloway MP, is the UK quantum ready? In reply, she referenced a number of key initiatives that aim to pave the way for a practical implementation of these machines in the UK. The National Quantum Technology Program started this journey in 2014, followed by the Quantum Technology Hub in Computing & Simulation (QCS) Hub, based in Oxford and producing world leading results. The National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) aims to futureproof the UK’s ambitions in quantum computing making them sustainable and world-class.
A long-running theme throughout the day was the newly announced Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), a new research funding opportunity for illusive high-risk, high reward projects. In fact, all the Science and Technology Select Committee members were equally as intrigued at the proposal and hoped to find answers in their own inquiry into ARIA, which began by questioning Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to the Prime Minister. The select committee made up of MPs from a mix of backgrounds and political parties was an enthusiastic and collaborative team, learning and cross-examining the UK’s leading scientists and challenging government policy.
To conclude, for anyone interested in the response to the impact of coronavirus and other developments in technology innovation, I strongly recommend watching the full sessions on YouTube.
After the event, Sir Patrick Vallance tweeted: 'A real pleasure to take part in @RoyalSocBio Voice of the Future session this afternoon. Great to answer questions on science policy from young representatives from across the science and engineering community.'
Photos: Sir Patrick Vallance by Duncan Hull (Wikimedia); Chi Onwurah MP, Greg Clark MP and Amanda Solloway MP courtesy of parliament.uk