Monthly Archives: March 2017

Voice of the Future Part 2

Here’s a more in-depth description of the questions and answers from the Voice of the Future event.

My question was to Chi Onwurah, the first person in the hotseat. You can watch it at this link (14:24:30-14:26:27). The question was: “The government is promoting apprenticeships, but many jobs are still advertised as requiring a degree, ruling out those who took a non-academic route. What should we do about this?”

As a last-minute substitute, I didn’t contribute to the question, but it’s a good one! Apprenticeships are very important alternatives to university, and they should be treated as legitimate alternative routes to good careers in a variety of fields, including scientific ones such as lab technicians and forensics.

Thankfully, she had a very good answer to this very good question! It began with a canned response outlining Labour’s policy on “advanced apprenticeships” (distinguishing itself from what Labour claims is the Tories’ focus on lower-skilled ones). But it’s good policy, so I’m happy. She also talked about changing the culture surrounding apprenticeships, suggesting we could increase transparency by highlighting people who have become successful via the apprenticeship route. She also noted that when she began her career as an engineer (after graduating from Imperial College!) many of the CTOs she met had come through the apprenticeship route, and lamented that this was no longer the case.

Chi also had great responses to other great questions. These included a nod to the excellent new film about NASA engineers called Hidden Figures in response to a question about mathematical literacy in schools, and the great quote “we shouldn’t change the meaning of science for one man” in reference to a certain orange-faced POTUS… She also spoke excellently on issues faced by women in STEM. Her whole section is worth a watch; she’s a thoroughly impressive MP.

Mark Walport was up next and also had some interesting things to say. Notably, he endorsed the STEAM acronym, adding “arts” to the usual science, tech, engineering and maths acronym. He also encouraged more reporting of negative results in science, discussed how to act when science and public opinion collide, and how to write policy governing self-driving cars.

After Mark came Jo “No, You’re Thinking Of My Brother” Johnson MP. For me this was the most interesting part of the event. He gave some good answers where he defended so-called blue skies research, endorsed evidence-based policy, and expressed support for open-access publication. But of course, he also defended a lot of government policy I’m not too happy about, including the TEF, immigration, and, of course, (*long, deep sigh*) Brexit.

He gave the usual platitudes around valuing collaborations with EU research collaborators, but as they say in Westeros, words are wind. It’s one thing to say how much you care about preserving UK/EU collaborations, it’s another to want to burn every bridge we have with Europe, as the May government he is part of is doing.

He was also asked an important question by the Geological Society: “why does the government continue to include international students in the immigration cap?” I felt his response was not good enough. For a start, in what I thought was a typical patrician Tory remark, he said “this conversation produces a lot of heat and not much light”, which sounds like the kind of thing you’re free to say when you’re not directly affected by these policies, unlike a lot of people I know personally.

He claimed “there’s no limit to the number of international students that can come to the UK”, which may be true, but the government does currently include international students in immigration figures. (Though as of this week that may change!) This is a highly charged and provocative statistic which has been the source of much political chest-thumping in recent years, mainly thanks to UKIP and the tabloids.

The Tories infamously pledged (and re-pledged!) to reduce net migration to below 100k a year, and, as Home Secretary, Theresa May introduced punishing laws concerning international students who graduate to help achieve this (unachievable…) goal. Clearly including international students in immigration figures produces tangible effects on policy, and Jo seemed to be either wilfully or ignorantly denying this fact as he tried to get away with slipping a pretty big caveat into his defence of the government’s policy in this area.

Finally, Jo was replaced with four members of the actual committee: Stephen Metcalfe, Dr Tania Mathias, Matt Warman and Carol Monaghan (three Tory and one SNP MP respectively). Anna, a friend of mine representing the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, asked a great question about how AI and policy intersect, including a discussion of “robot taxes”. Another person asked about the UK space industry (something I’m involved with in a small way), we got the inevitable “post-truth politics” discussion, and more Brexit platitudes which my friend dismissed rather effectively (but to be fair, Tania, one of the Tories on the panel, did rebel against the government to protect EU residents post-Brexit…)

With respect to their oratory abilities, amicability, and intelligence, no MP stood out as being notably better or worse than any other. They all seemed like fine parliamentarians. But it’s no secret that I prefer Labour to the Conservatives, and so it’s inevitable that I’d conclude I was more impressed by Chi’s answers than Jo’s (though to be fair I liked a lot of what Tania had to say). While everyone had great, positive points to make which showed they clearly understood the challenges faced by people working in STEM, I couldn’t look past Jo’s bad defences of what I think are some bad government policies. I wish I could have scrutinised what he had to say, to be honest. I still stand by what I wrote in the first post, though. This was an incredible event I’m very grateful to have been a part of.

Grilling MPs at Voice of the Future 2017


If you had the chance to ask an MP one question, what would it be?

A few weeks ago I blogged about writing to your MP as an act of civic responsibility. Yesterday, alongside dozens of other young scientists and engineers, I was given the amazing privilege and opportunity to ask an MP a question directly.

House of Commons select committees are small committees of MPs. Their job is to scrutinise the government on behalf of parliament, and they do this by inviting witnesses to testify before the committee. In these meetings, the committee sit around a famous horseshoe-shaped table, with a witness placed in the ‘hotseat’ in front of them. An infamous example from recent memory is the grilling Sir Philip Green faced from the Business, Innovation and Skills committee over the BHS pensions scandal.


The Science and Technology Committee is another such committee, charged with scrutinising science-related government policy, from the environment to education to research funding and beyond. They meet and hear from all sorts, including academics and experts. But yesterday, the tables were turned for the Royal Society of Biology’s fifth annual Voice of the Future event.


At this event, young scientists from several of the UK’s learned societies such as CaSE, the Biochemical Society, and even two high schools, were invited to Parliament to reverse the usual format of the select committee, and ask the committee members key questions on science and tech policy issues taken from the suggestions of young scientists.


As the RSB’s director of parliamentary affairs Dr Stephen Benn (brother of Hilary Benn!) noted:

“This is a unique event – in no other part of Parliament is the normal select committee format completely reversed so that MPs have to answer questions rather than ask them. 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.”


The event had four parts. First, Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central & Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, was put in the hotseat and asked questions. Then she was replaced by Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, followed by Tory Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson MP (brother of Boris Johnson!), and finally by members of the committee proper: four MPs led by Tory MP Stephen Metcalfe.

Thanks to a last-minute drop out from one of the scheduled attendees from the Institute of Physics, I was given the opportunity to come to the event and ask a question to Chi Onwurah MP and hear her reply. You can watch it at this link (14:24:30 – 14:26:27).


After her session ended, Sir Mark Walport took the hotseat, and a different IoP member got a turn to represent the organisation. I went to sit with the audience and watched the rest of the event unfold. (I also began furiously livetweeting!)

There were lots of good questions from all of the participants, and plenty of interesting responses from the MPs in question. I wrote about them in more detail in another blog post.

The committee closed the panel with a discussion of how they became MPs. Dr Tania Mathias, a Tory MP, concluded with a great quote: “you’re probably more political than you realise,” which I appreciated. They also gave out some “I Heart Evidence” badges, which they all wear on the committee.


Select committees are a vital part of our democracy. They’re a place for all kinds of experts to inform policymakers and keep their decisions rooted in reality (in principle…). As this event was happening, MPs were in the Commons debating a major U-turn on a key part of the government’s week-old budget statement. That may be where the ‘glamour’ (and certainly the media) was, but the grunt work of government was happening in our room, as the scientists (and maybe political leaders?) of tomorrow got a taste of how our democracy functions, all while getting to voice our concerns to the Powers That Be.


Of course it was scripted. Of course all the questions and answers were canned. But they were damn good questions written by young scientists, and they needed to be asked. The fact that the MPs were made to understand that young scientists care about these issues (funding, Brexit, tech policy, education, etc.) is an important thing in and of itself. They work for us, and whether by writing letters, going to protests, or getting involved in events like this, they must never be allowed to forget that.

I want to express my gratitude to the IoP for allowing me to fill in at the last minute. I want to thank my friend Ben for helping to arrange for me to come. I want to thank all the friends I saw at the event (and thank you, Iulia, for your expert-level livetweeting). I want to thank all the MPs who came, all the Royal Society of Biology staff, especially Dr Stephen Benn, for organising everything, and the staff in the learned societies and in Westminster who made it all possible. It’s cheesy to say but it’s an event I’ll never forget.