Yesterday, 20 March 2013, I went to London to participate in Voice of the Future 2013. It was an opportunity to meet with scientists from across the spectrum and discuss what really mattered to us. I just happened to sit next to Dr. Jo Parish, a lecturer in the School of Cancer Sciences at the University of Birmingham (of all places!), who was representing the Royal Society in Panels 3 and 4. There were also representatives from Science Grrl, a group which showcase the careers of real women scientists, in attendance much to the credit of the organisers. I was there to ask a question on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and served on Panels 3 and 4 (although I only had 1 question).
My question asked Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science and Prof. John Perkins, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of BIS about what they were doing to retain science PhDs who were dropping out of science after their studies.
Although I cannot speak for the RAS about how they feel about the reply, it is safe to say that I was very dissatisfied with the response. David Willetts questioned the validity of this claim (and the research that had gone in to it) and then said that scientists who were not in Academia shouldn't be considered non-scientists. This obviously is not an answer to the RAS's question. I never mentioned Academia or scientists leaving it per se. At least David Willetts tried (somewhat half-heartedly in my opinion) to answer the question, Prof. Perkins did not. As Chief Scientific Advisor, I thought he would have had an opinion on the subject...
I thought that the day was a good way to get scientists talking to Parliament, but it would have been more useful, in my opinion, if there were a dialogue. We could only ask our assigned question and wait for an answer; there was no opportunity for a rebuttal. If there had been, I would've clarified my question and made David Willetts answer my actual question.
I'm not sure if all the MPs at Voice of the Future took this panel seriously. It seemed to me that they kept repeating the same answers to many different questions and didn't offer any new insights. The exception to this was Shabana Mahmood MP, Shadow Minister for Universities and Science. I found her answers to be sincere, thoughtful and meaningful. It's a shame she didn't participate in other Panels, I think she set the bar quite high.
Perhaps the Biology Society would consider changing the format of VOF for 2014? I sincerely believe that even just 1 (optional) rebuttal from the person asking the question would greatly improve the quality of the answers and the overall impact of the VOF session.
You can watch Voice of the Future 2013 here and decide for yourself! You may have to install Microsoft Silverlight to watch it ... grrrr...
Follow Jo and her group on @HPVSupergroup and Science Grrl on http://www.sciencegrrl.co.uk/ and @Science_Grrl.