17 March 2017

Young chemical engineers pitch questions to politicians and policy makers in Parliament

Voice of the Future 2017 - IChemE reps

Four chemical engineers were chosen to represent the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) at this year’s Voice of the Future. The event was organised by the Royal Society of Biology (RSB), and took place earlier this week at Westminster.

Caitlin Taylor, chemical engineering PhD student at University of Bath; David Streather, Process Engineer at AstraZeneca; Tamsin Jackson, Tritium Engineer at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy; and Matt Green, Engineering Manager at Recycling Technologies; took to Portcullis House to question the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee on the important issues facing them as chemical engineers.

The annual event saw school students through to early-career scientists and engineers pitch their questions to top politicians and policy makers, in four separate panel sessions. IChemE held a competition in February and chose four winners based on the strength of the question they wanted to ask MPs.

Caitlin Taylor, whose research at University of Bath looks at using UV light and metals to treat wastewater, asked the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee:

“With less than 15% of MPs with backgrounds in STEM, how should the government ensure that policy-making remains firmly based on evidence?”

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee replied:

“I don’t think that there has to be a direct link between having a science background and being able to base your decision-making process upon evidence. If you believe in evidence you all have to stand up for it.”

Dr Tania Mathias MP added:

“We do have some engineers in Parliament and I’m sure we could always do with some more. The fact is evidence is scrutinised ever day in Parliamentary debates. You will get pulled up if your argument and your evidence isn’t strong.”

David Streather, a process engineer working on developing biomedicine at AstraZeneca also had the opportunity to quiz Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, on scientific research and asked:

“Scientific research is being badly affected by the need to constantly publish positive results in order to maintain grants. Is there a plan to review the grants system in the UK, to ensure a more positive research environment that encourages steady progress and the publishing of negative results?”

The Chief Scientific Advisor replied:

“It’s important to distinguish the several different reasons for negative results. Some make it difficult to publish work and others don’t. When scientific research is well done, even if the results are negative, they are still important and the work can be published. I think the challenge is work which is insufficient.”

David was selected to attend the event for submitting an interesting question about the future of science communication:

“What is the Government’s strategy for the future of science communication? How will you tackle the current trend of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ when evidence-based, peer-reviewed work is the standard all scientists adhere to in order to make the world a better place.”

Matt Warman MP answered a similar question at the briefing and responded:

“What we need to do is try to encourage critical thinking in our schools and elsewhere, to help people understand what is a useful source of information, and what is less useful. This could be supported even further by the scientific community talking more openly; science isn’t about there being one right answer and dismissing everything else as rubbish. Scientific progress relies on a debate and a discussion between competing theories the more we can do to help scientists communicate that, the better we will all be.”

Tamsin Jackson, a chemical engineer working in nuclear energy, felt nuclear safety and advancement was suffering following the Britain’s vote to exit the EU, and asked:

“Withdrawing from the EU will also mean withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). What impacts are foreseen as a consequence of this? What new legal framework is anticipated to cover nuclear safety regulation or the import of radioactive isotopes for medical and research purposes? How might the funding currently provided to UK nuclear research by Euratom be replaced?”

Speaking more broadly about EU regulations, Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation said:

“For the time being, we are still very much members of the European Union with the rights and obligations that come with being full members. We can participate in all the EU decision-making to make sure the interests and views of our researchers and Institutions are properly reflected. Longer term, our relationship to EU programmes will be subject to wider Brexit negotiations. But we’ve been very clear as a government that we value our European research partnerships and our collaborative structures. We want to make sure those collaborative relationships continue to be productive in years to come.”

Matt Green, who works with waste operators to offer them a sustainable solution to plastic recycling, met with his local MP James Gray at the event to discuss the importance of having an engineering opinion represented in policy discussions.

Speaking after the event, Matt said:

“The reported closed-loop recycling of the world’s plastic packaging currently stands at just 2% of the 78 million tonnes produced annually, while the percentage reported to be “leaked to the environment” stands at a staggering 32%.

“25 million tonnes of plastic a year, the weight of 2 million double-decker London buses, is littering our countryside and our oceans. It is predicted by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. This is an important issue that MPs should be paying attention to.

“I was really pleased to represent IChemE at Voice of the Future, and to experience what a real-life evidence session was like. To meet with my local MP at the House and discuss my work at Recycling Technologies was a brilliant opportunity, and I hope a step towards improving plastic recycling in the UK.”

The event saw over 60 representatives pitch their questions to Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor; Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Jo Johnson MP; Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy Chi Onwurah MP; and the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee.

The event was held in the Boothroyd Room, which has previously seen Prime Ministers, eminent researchers, and distinguished experts deliver evidence to politicians and policymakers. This time the committee seats were occupied by young scientists and engineers, while the politicians were in the witness seats ready to answer their questions.

Claudia Flavell-While, IChemE’s Director of Policy, said:

“This year was the first time we asked our young members to compete for a place at this event. We were inundated with applications, and the range of questions people wanted to ask – from energy to pharmaceuticals - was fantastic. It’s a clear indication of how important policy is to the young chemical engineers who will be helping to solve global problems in the not so distant future.”

Dr Stephen Benn, the Royal Society of Biology’s (RSB’s) Director of Parliamentary Affairs, said:

“This is a unique event – in no other part of Parliament is the normal select committee format completely reversed so that MPs, the Minister and the Shadow Minister have to answer questions rather than ask them.

“It is important that policy makers use reliable evidence in their decisions, and today’s young scientists and engineers will be a vital part of this in the future.”

My IChemE

IChemE is a registered charity in England & Wales (214379), and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 039661).