Voice of the Future 2019: Brexit, climate change, and the STEM skills gap
Hannah Dalgleish, Astrophysics PhD student at LJMU
Tuesday 12th March, 2019 – seventeen days before the UK is set to leave the EU – one hundred young scientists came together in the Palace of Westminster to pose forty of the most pressing questions concerning young people in science today.
I was invited to represent the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics, out of a total of twenty-three different organisations – including one local high school. Unsurprisingly, Brexit dominated the discussion, followed by themes relating to climate change and the STEM skills gap.
The morning began with a spirited welcome from the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP. Four Members on the Science and Technology Committee (Norman Lamb MP, Vicky Ford MP, Stephen Metcalfe MP, and Carol Monaghan MP) took part in the first session; Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Adviser, answered questions in the second session; Chris Skidmore MP (Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) the third; and Chi Onwurah MP (Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation) concluded the event in the fourth session.
In anticipation of what science in post-Brexit Britain might look like, young scientists asked how the government plans to retain the scientists currently residing in the UK and encourage more skilled workers to come and work here. Everyone agreed that the proposed salary threshold of £30,000 for immigrants is unreasonably high, and would be detrimental to the country and to UK science. Chi Onwurah MP emphasised the importance for scientist’s mobility, and that negotiations are ongoing to have this in place.
Questions also centred on funding; without European Research Council and Marie Curie Fellowships (worth billions) – will alternative funds be made available? Chris Skidmore MP agreed that there must be new funding, it needs to be open to internationals and carry the same prestige as the other grants.
One of my questions was about the Erasmus+ programme, which has benefited thousands of UK students and staff for 30 years. How will post-Brexit alternatives continue this knowledge exchange smoothly? Chris Skidmore MP said that bilateral agreements may be possible, as countries like Israel and Serbia are currently involved in Erasmus+ without being in the EU.
Besides Brexit, we are living in a world where we are constantly bombarded by information. The Royal Astronomical Society asked, how can public confidence in STEM experts be improved? Sir Patrick Vallance commented on the need for the media to stop making large and impossible claims (e.g. Alzheimer's will be cured in the next five years). Instead, the scientific method should be emphasised, in order to build trust and confidence in STEM. People may also feel empowered to realise that they use scientific methods on a daily basis (e.g. from choosing which products to buy in the supermarket to deciding who to vote for).
My favourite question of the day was asked by Queens Park Community School: “how do you feel about the fact that school children are now striking to try and ensure adults take action to safeguard their future?” The response was positive and encouraging; the Members on the Select Committee all felt that it is wonderful to see young people engaging, making a difference and being so passionate about the biggest challenge humanity currently faces.
While many other questions were asked across a vast range of topics, the message of the day was clear: if we are to be of greater benefit to society, more scientists need to be engaging in politics. We owe it to ourselves to use our knowledge and experience to influence change.
Organised by the Royal Society of Biology (www.rsb.org.uk), this is the 8th time the event has been held. If you would like to listen to the recording of the event, you can do so here: https://goo.gl/7zPf9z