News / Slider / Uncategorized / June 23, 2015

Nicola gives keynote address at Parliamentary Links Day

Links Day is largest science event on the annual Parliamentary events calendar, and is organised by the Society of Biology on behalf of the science and technology community, bringing together scientists, learned societies and Members of Parliament.

This year saw over 200 scientists and parliamentarians packed into the largest public room in Portcullis House for ‘Science and the New Parliament’, with a focus on the value of science both within the UK and internationally.

Chaired by Stephen Metcalfe MP, the day was opened by John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, who congratulated the Society of Biology for being awarded Royal status, with contributions from the new minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson MP and the shadow Science Minister, Liam Byrne MP.


Good morning everyone. I am very grateful for the invitation to speak today and I would like to thank Stephen, the Royal Society for Biology and the whole team for all their hard work organizing today.

Today is about bringing decision makers and the science community together, about delving a little deeper into the value of Science nationally and internationally.

It is an immense privilege and a heavy responsibility to have been elected as prospective chair the Science & Technology Committee – the new Committee faces a formidable challenge – there is little that the Government does or Parliament considers that cannot be usefully informed by scientific evidence.

Obviously, the agenda of the committee can only be set once the members have been elected but I can talk about the general direction as I see it.

The skill will be in discerning signal from noise – as in so much that we do in this data rich age – not only so that we can better inform MPs about the evidence that underpins their decisions but also so that we can challenge the Government on policy.

We must offer our heartfelt thanks to Andrew Miller, Stephen Metcalfe, Julian Huppert and the previous committee members for making sure this happened in the last Parliament often on very challenging issues.

One of the alarm bells that Andrew rang at the end of his time as chair was that too few colleagues were prioritizing evidence based decision making. This is a problem we need to solve.

Like the vast majority of my colleagues and civil servants I am a non-scientist – I grew up in a medical household but unfortunately a ‘research scientist’ isn’t a contagion so I became a musicologist then a politician representing perhaps one of the most innovation-intensive constituencies in the country.

As a new MP in the last Parliament I quickly learnt I was never going to be an established specialist in everything I was going to need to take serious political decisions about so I was – quickly – going to have to develop high level skills in analyzing evidence and judging advice. I also concluded that developing networks of experts in advance of decisions was an efficient way to make an informed decision.

There are already valuable tools in place to help parliamentarians do this: POST, Case, the Commons Library are all exceptional, as are the learned societies. But colleagues have to access them for the desired effect to be achieved! I welcomed Naomi’s comment that non-scientists should not feel they are barred from engaging with science policy – it is too easy for non-scientists to feel intimidated or unwelcome. It is my goal as the new Chair of the Science & Technology Committee to ensure that all my colleagues, scientists and non-scientists alike are welcomed, and encouraged to engage in science and technology policy.

The Royal Society Pairing Scheme, for example, seems to many colleagues like a big time commitment – for those here who don’t know a decision maker and a scientist are paired and each shadow the other in their workplace for a week. MPs rarely do anything for more than an hour – if youre lucky! I have now done the Pairing Scheme three times – with Particle Physicist David Wark, Immunology researcher Prof Kathryn Wood and with BT’s Chief Security Researcher Robert Ghanea-Hercock. And I have found that the time committed to the scheme is more than repaid by the long term relationship with the scientists that results from the scheme, by the greater understanding their working processes and environment.

Of course, I’m lucky, representing Oxford, I am sort of drowning in experts. I joke but I love it. It’s what keeps me on my toes and it’s been my resource throughout the last five years.

We can all mourn the fact that there are too few scientists elected to this place – there are but the only way to overcome that, is either for a few of you to stand or to forge ever greater bonds between Parliament and the scientific community.

Parliamentary Links Day is a beacon in this endeavour. And this year in particular, comes as it does, right at the beginning of the Parliament and before the Select Committee has been formed, is an ideal opportunity to bring proper influence to the new Committee’s future programme and work.

To be honest though, the moment I heard of my election to chair, my mind didn’t immediately turn to great challenges ahead. Instead, I was back at the breakfast table, an eight year old listening to my father, who still teaches cardiology at Oxford, using my pulse rate as an excuse to yet again tell me the story of Harvey and the discovery of circulation.

His love of medical history bred in me an acute appreciation of the way restless scientific endeavour has shaped the world we take for granted today.

At 70 he’s just had a quadruple bypass, something that would not have been possible without Harvey, and now he’s starting a Masters at Oxford in the History of Science hoping to catalogue clinical signs & symptoms as an aide for future medical students struggling with information overload and out of date curricula. He is an inspiration.

From a young age he taught me that a vital lesson of history’s great scientific stories was that artificially narrowing your field of inquiry in the name of ‘short term impact’ puts groundbreaking discovery at risk. Discoveries that can be exploited to the benefit, and on occasion the transformation, of society. To misquote Lord Porter: ‘There are two kinds of research; exploited research and not yet exploited research.’ It’s just a question of timescales.

The debate about the relative importance of fundamental and applied research in STEM has, in my opinion, been won. Both are essential. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy to develop funding, education, infrastructure strategies that get the balance right – I suspect this will be an area we’ll forever need to health check and pull back into balance. And this I believe will be a task that the Select Committee will always need to play a part in.

But whatever the nature of inquiry, the British scientific community leads the world not only in the quality of research but also in productivity. At just over 3% of the world’s R&D spending, we produce over 6% of the world’s publications and 16% of the world’s most cited papers.

The evidence is clear: our researchers translate funding into great science more effectively than anyone else.

They attract more inward investment for research than any other part of Europe. 

And they’re a good return on investment: the government’s own analysis found that their R&D grants boost private R&D investment by 30%.

If the Chancellor is going to target productivity gap as his key challenge he might want to think about the fact that although the evidence shows that firms that consistently invest in R&D are 13% more productive than those that don’t we still lag well behind international competitors for public and private R&D investment in the UK.

Globalisation means that a single disruptive technology can create a worldwide paradigm shift in what seems like an instant: think about e-commerce or google or Netflix. Our STEM ecosystem needs to be the most agile and responsive in the world if we are to compete in this environment.

But despite significant efforts since the Technology Strategy Board was set up in 2004, and a world leading research base, UK commercialisation remains suboptimal.

InnovateUK has an excellent reputation amongst researchers of all disciplines and firms of all sizes but tech firms outside London speak of a chronic shortage of private early stage funding and a mismatch between the longer-lead in times, especially for biotech, and the impatience venture capital investors.

Incentives for individual investors, R&D tax credits and the ‘patent box’, do de-risk investments – but none of these interventions are breakthrough, ‘throwing down the gauntlet to silicon valley’ funding solutions.

At the very least, incentives for pension funds, endowments, insurance companies: those with a long term perspective to invest directly in tech firms would certainly be a step forward.

In five years of representing what I must consider the finest vertex of our ‘Golden Triangle’, I have learnt a few things:

Always go to surgery prepared for an impromptu tutorial on quantum gravity or muons….

And you can’t slide a graphene film between academia, enterprise and research facilities in STEM – they are interdependent, place-based systems and whose precondition for existence is the infrastructure necessary for recruitment, retention and growth: affordable housing, sustainable transport networks, digital infrastructure, high quality skills – both HE and Apprenticeships.

Somehow though we rarely succeed in developing policy for them as a coherent whole.

The closest we have come are the City Deals.

The new Cities Devolution Bill promises more in the same vein which is welcome.

But there’s a wider interdisciplinary lesson here too.

Where would high tech, UK creative industries be without Tolkien or CS Lewis or Philip Pullman for example? Our gaming industry has grown 13% since 2013 yet rarely recognise these intellectual roots as we focus solely on the need for standalone maths and coding skills. Our creative and technological industries are inextricably linked, so too should our education and policy making be.

That is why I am so supportive of the Royal Society’s recommendation for new baccalaureate-style frameworks that encompass vocational and academic learning across a broad range of subjects to age 18.

Research and Innovation do not abide by departmental boundaries.

Happily neither does the Science & Technology Select Committee.

It is stating the obvious to say that outstanding research, translated into innovation, has brought huge societal benefits – widespread electrification, better healthcare, mass production of food, clothing and shelter, better transport links. In our knowledge-based economy, the pursuit of excellence in research and innovation breeds competitiveness and high-value jobs growth and that’s before we get on to the role UK researchers play in addressing major national and global challenges.

To ensure the right research is done requires a well-founded basis for making sure science budgets are well-allocated and well-spent. The Spending Review will shape the Government’s ‘science budget’, including funding for the Research Councils and science institutions. This autumn will determine the funding available for much of the life of this Parliament: It will vital that the sums are right.

But this isn’t a one way street. As Sir Mark Walport’s latest Annual Report makes clear, innovation paired with poor or just short term, political decisions also brings risks: climate change, water insecurity, cyber threats.

As we leave the Industrial Revolution behind, the most obvious challenges of the Technological Age for a policy maker must be the dilemma of how to regulate so as to harness the benefits of evolving technologies while also predicting potential risks: given the pace of innovation, the scale of its impact and, often, the volume and uncertainty of the evidence base, this represents nothing so much as a fast moving target.

That is why it will be essential for the new Committee’s agenda to be influenced by legislation going through Parliament: we must work together to offer MPs as much scientific evidence as possible as they make decisions that will have long terms impacts.

Future proof legislation is a great phrase, not often effectively realised.

Mitochondrial donation stands out as an example of how it can be done. Now we need more of the same.

.But in thinking about how to improve political decision making we should take a moment to remember the context in which most of these decisions are made: usually there’s no time, you are dealing with conflicting vested interests, voter expectations, and, at times, genuinely uncertain scientific evidence.

Often it’s difficult to know how much weight to give to minority opinions on both sides. Social media is a classic example of self selecting pressure groups that can be hard to ignore when you’re getting 50 tweets an hour or 800 emails in 24 hours.

A vital job for scientists outside and in Whitehall and for the Select Committee is to sift the genuine evidence from bad science and make sense of those voices for colleagues.

Meanwhile, governments expect, and are expected, to be able to Govern – we are a representative democracy. But if Parliament gives Government this right then Government also has a responsibility to explain its actions – just as MPs must explain their actions to voters.

It’s my job, along with my new committee members, to make sure that’s what the Science & Technology Select Committee delivers that in this Parliament.

I am 100% committed to fighting for science in this place. I know for sure we will face many testing questions of funding, education and ethics. But I know one thing even more certainly. The more difficult the decision the more important it will be to have the input and the backing of the science community. I will do whatever I can to help make that happen.



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Nicola to Chair Parliamentary Science & Technology Select Committee
Nicola has been elected as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee. The secret ballot of MPs from all parties closed...