Report from the 2016 Voice of the Future event in Parliament

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Members of the Royal Statistical Society's Young Statisticians Section (YSS) committee, Janette McQuillan and Maria Sudell, attended this year's annual Voice of the Future event, which was held in Parliament on Tuesday 1 March.

Below, Janette and Maria talk about their experience of the event, and what was discussed with the Government chief scientific advisor Sir Mark Walport and MPs from the Science and Technology Committee. The event also featured a link-up with Tim Peake from the International Space Station.

Janette McQuillan

'The Voice of the Future event provided an excellent opportunity to sit at the Committee 'horseshoe' table at Parliament and ask the Government chief scientific advisor and MPs on the Science and Technology Committee questions about science policy and their key priorities for the years ahead.

I asked the Committee a question about the progress that has been made with making government datasets publicly available for analysis and how data-driven initiatives can help inform decision making processes in government. In response to my question, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Nicola Blackwood MP discussed the recently published Big Data report and specifically highlighted some of the key issues raised by the report that really need to be addressed - the variability inherent in data quality, the provision of an auditing framework and the necessity for the availability of data in real-time.

There was quite a discussion around the likely impact of the UK leaving the European Union on the scientific research community. The general consensus among committee members was that EU membership  was in the science community's best interest because we receive substantial funding for our research from the EU and benefit greatly from international collaborations.

There were many questions relating to the obesity problem in the UK and the introduction of a sugar tax as a potential solution. Yvonne Fovargue MP, Shadow minister for BIS suggested that as a society we need better education about the sugar content of foods and we need to address the fact that the cost of healthy eating is significantly higher. She believes that we need to subsidise the cost of healthy food and explore how unhealthy foods can be used to supplement that.

Another issue that was discussed at great length was the lack of female representation in high level science positions in both academia and industry. The Committee recognise the need for a cultural shift in attitude for any changes in this area to be realised. There needs to be greater encouragement for young girls to study mathematics and physics at A-level. We need strong female role models to show that it is possible for women to be highly successful in what is typically seen as a male dominated environment and we need greater job security to enable women to pursue a career in academia. In industry, there needs to be more flexibility in working hours given to women with families. Stella Creasy MP suggested that men have a key role to play in this and need to be more supportive in relation to the provision of child care. Women need to be more supportive and encouraging of each other. Stella strongly believes that we all have the power to make this change happen.

The highlight of the event for me was a parliamentary first, a video message broadcast from 400km above the earth from Major Tim Peake. It was fascinating to hear about the life science experiments he is conducting to investigate the effects of gravity on ageing and the potential impact this could have on those suffering with asthma.'

Maria Sudell

'I was excited to attend the Voice of the Future 2016 event and to find out how policy for science was perceived at parliament. It was a great opportunity to discover and discuss the issues important to individuals working in STEM areas. We heard questions answered by Sir Mark Walport, the Select Committee on Science and Technology, minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson, the Shadow Minister for Science Yvonne Forvargue MP and even a video message from Tim Peake at the International Space Station.

Questions were submitted by a range of institutions and societies, including the Council for Mathematical Sciences (the CMS, comprising the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the London Mathematical Society and the RSS). Questions submitted by the CMS covered areas such as making government datasets publicly available and possible initiatives to encourage school leavers to take up a career in mathematical sciences. Several initiatives to engage students in sciences were discussed including STEM ambassadors, and the need for individuals and companies working in relevant areas to come into schools to give talks about future career paths. It was encouraging to see a wide range of societies from areas as far reaching as microbiology and astronomy represented at this event, along with students from two high schools who also submitted questions to the panel.'

The event was followed a week later with the SET for Britain awards - further details on these in due course.

You can also read about last year's event.

Photos courtesy of the Royal Society of Biology.

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