The look upon my face as I sat in the “horseshoe”, normally reserved for MPs to interrogate witnesses, was one of a nervous disposition. Hidden below this angry exterior however was excitement and believe it or not, happiness. Invited to represent The Royal Society, one of the most prestigious and historical societies in the world, dating back to 1660, was something I never thought would happen. Maybe this was imposter syndrome, but I did wonder how I managed to be so lucky. As I try to keep reminding myself however, it was not luck, but hard work and determination which brought me to Parliament on that very day.
The event, called Voice of the Future run by the Royal Society of Biology, is an opportunity unlike any other. Early career researchers are invited to Parliament to grill MPs on matters relating to science and policy. This year the unlucky victims (or chosen ones?) included members of the Science and Technology Select Committee, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, Chi Onwurah MP and the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson MP.
Held on the 15th March 2017, the event came at a time of political unrest, with article 50 clearing parliament just days previous. Unsurprisingly many of the questions were surrounding the unknowns of Brexit and where science and scientists fit within the future plan. Whilst this is an incredibly important topic, I felt the answers were more fiction than fact. Due to the complexity of Brexit and the infinite possible outcomes, there was little resolution.
Another hot topic discussed were the issues and challenges that surround women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, talked of the leaky pipeline, negative impacts of short term contracts and the poor work conditions often experienced by post-doctoral researchers. Carol Monaghan MP highlighted that we must take a step back in time and look at the societal pressures put upon girls from birth, dressing baby girls in pink and baby boys in blue, later tweeting:
“And give girls exciting toys too! Not dolls.”
Whilst I felt these group of MPs had crystal clear understanding of some of the barriers that face women in STEM, I am also of the opinion that there is a lack of action. This is something I have felt for many years after attending a special lecture at Liverpool John Moores University, discussing the government’s response to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report on “Women in Scientific Careers”, back in 2013/14. The resonating theme of the document is that the responsibility lies with the higher education institutes themselves rather than that of the government, clearly displaying a lack of buy in.
Nonetheless this event was truly rewarding for me personally, not only by developing my understanding of politics and science policy, but also having the opportunity to be in discussions with the people that will be shaping the future of science; the future of my career.
Events such as these are perfect opportunities to broaden our skill set as researchers, allowing us to expand beyond the traditional success measure of “research excellence”. When I look at colleagues with huge paper counts and endless citations I offer wonder will I ever compare, but when I delve deeper into their broader skill set I might find it lacking. It is not about whose way is right or wrong, mine or theirs. It is about the acceptance that people are different, with varied skills and talents and acknowledging, accepting and encouraging that. There is more to a successful scientific research career than an h-index.
I urge anyone who is interested to apply next year for it is truly a marvellous experience. Please click the link below for more information on Voice of the Future: https://www.rsb.org.uk/policy/policy-events/voice-of-the-future
*Image courtesy of the Royal Society of Biology