Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Shaping the Future of Science - CaSE's 30th Anniversary

'Where will you be at 6:30pm on a Monday evening in November in 30 years? What will you be doing?'

Dr Sarah Main, CaSE Executive Director

On 14th November 2016 I was delighted to attend an event entitled 'Shaping the Future of Science' organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) as an IPEM representative. The purpose of the evening was looking ahead to the role of science and engineering in the next 30 years. The evening was divided into two parts, the first being a panel discussion between 6 excellently selected guests from a range of backgrounds. These guests included a Professor of Economics, the Chairman of a world leading IT company, a Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, a Professor of Molecular Biology and NASA employee, and a published author. The second part of the evening was Professor Brian Cox, Jo Johnson MP and Professor Jim Al-Khalili 'in conversation'.

Left to right:
Phil Smith, Chairman, Cisco UK and Ireland
Professor Jonathon Haskel, Professor of Economics, Imperial College London
Dr Sarah Main, CaSE Executive Director (Chair)
Katie Ward, Author of 'Girl Reading'
Professor Lynn Rothschild, Adjunct Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology & Biochemistry, Brown University
Dr Adam Kucharski, Assistant Professor, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

As you might imagine, key themes for the evening were post-Brexit science, equality and diversity within science and engineering with plenty of speculation about the technology that might be available to us in 30 years time. Phil Smith, Chairman at Cisco discussed the ever developing 'internet of things', stating that, in the first 3 months of 2016, more cars were connected to the internet for the first time than phones. Katie Ward read an excerpt from her book 'Girl reading', a chapter of which is set in 2060 where life can either be lived in 'real world' (note, not 'the' read world) or in an augmented reality called 'mesh' which can be viewed through 'iSpecs' or helmets (for children who haven't worked out how not to walk into real walls). Katie Ward's book will definitely be going on my Christmas list. 

One of my favourite analogies of the evening was by economist Prof. Haskel. He used a wonderful example to illustrate the perception of science and engineering by those not in the science community and some of the associated illogicality. Historically, when taking a lift, you would press the button and wait. Once the lift arrives, everyone piles in and the lift stops at every required floor up to the top of the building. Many modern lifts now use algorithms to decide which lift to get in to in order to get to the required floor. This is more time efficient for all parties and ensures the lifts are not over capacity. However, when someone who arrives after you gets in the lift first, you feel aggrieved, despite still arriving at your destination faster.

The scientists on the panel discussed science communication and public engagement. I believe the predominantly pro-EU science and engineering community are worried, panicked and demoralised by the apparent lack of support for science and engineering which was demonstrated by the referendum result. Please pardon my wide sweeping generalisations which are likely to be criticised, these are my personal views. One of the panel speakers identified that "we have completely failed to communicate to the man on the street the importance of science and engineering". It was surprisingly reassuring to hear Katie Ward, who bravely shouldered the role of 'non-scientist' and 'representative of the art community', reassuring us that we have "great support with the public". She went on to say that we "just need to tap into it through the right narratives".

Left to right:
Professor Brian Cox OBE, Advanced Fellow of Particle Physics, University of Manchester
Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE, Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Surrey (Chair)
Jo Johnson MP, Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister

The second part of the evening was a 'conversation' between Professor Brian Cox, Jo Johnson MP and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. I was unaware that the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation is not actually a scientist, instead describing himself as an "amateur enthusiast". It became apparent very quickly that the key discussion themes would be Brexit, science education, international students and diversity within STEM subjects. It was unanimously agreed that practical, hands on science is the best way to engage children, with Prof Cox saying "once you start doing science, that's when you get the bug". A humorous part of the evening was Jo Johnson discussing 'Boaty McBoatface', suggesting to the audience to "never ask a question to which you already know the answer".

Similar themes to the earlier panel discussion were identified regarding science and engineering post Brexit. Both Prof Cox and Jo Johnson agreed that "the public didn't vote one way or the other about science" and "science wasn't on the ballot on June 23rd". Prof Cox suggested that the message that "we are not a xenophobic country" was not being portrayed well. Jo Johnson countered this by reiterating that there is no cap on international students and that we are second in the world after the USA in terms of international students. It got a little heated when Prof Cox suggested international students be taken out of the immigration tariffs as this was indirectly capping the number of international students.

STEM subjects in schools were discussed at length, clearly a subject Prof Cox is passionate about. He suggested that education is a national security issue and identified that "funding in education requires a step change". Jo Johnson went on to discuss some of the initiatives being introduced, such as a non-interest bearing financial product for those that may be unable to take student loans for religious reasons. He also mentioned the new Office for Students which will promote equality of opportunity.

Girls in STEM was raised by an audience member and Prof Cox highlighted the importance of avoiding unconscious bias. Jo Johnson apologised for not including a female scientist in his speech at a CaSE event earlier in the year and reiterated the importance of making the most of female role models.

In summary, the evening was an interesting, diverse and exciting event which brought together a wonderful mix of panellists to discuss the future of science and engineering. Whilst inevitably the evening revolved around the concerning political developments of the last few months, I believe that most attendees left feeling positive about the future of science and engineering. It was a privilege to represent IPEM at such a well organised event and I look forward to doing so in the future.


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