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Producing Scientists for Society

Dr Michael W. Elves, Chairman, Newton’s Apple Foundation

Dr Michael W. Elves, Chairman, Newton’s Apple Foundation

Dr Ian Gibson, President, Newton’s Apple Foundation

Dr Ian Gibson, President, Newton’s Apple Foundation








In a recent article in the Observer newspaper article Will Hutton has set the alarm bells ringing regarding the importance of postgraduate training in our Universities, and the likely impact upon it of accrued student debt. He points to the decline in the numbers of English graduates going onto study at postgraduate level.  We share this worry, but are also concerned about whether the current provision of Doctoral training and training in the early postdoctoral research appointments, particularly in the sciences and engineering, take into account sufficiently the need to prepare the postgraduate for future employment.  It has been pointed out, that with the present squeeze on university finances and research funding, only one in ten postdocs can now expect to find careers in the academic system as a senior Principle Investigator (PI). Something achieved only after years of acting as research assistants to their supervisors and supported by grant-dependant fellowships, and the like. In the future therefore much postdoctoral employment for scientists and engineers is likely to be in fields other than that for which their training, as currently carried out, prepares them.

In our 21st Century Society there is, and will continue to be, a great need for a better understanding of where, and how, science and technology fit into the cultural and industrial life of the nation.   Furthermore the research community will need to become more active in providing advice, or comment, to government where proposed new policies involve new knowledge that their research gives them access to. Therefore for those that stay in the research arena we feel that there must be some preparation as part of their postgraduate training for this aspect of the scientist or engineer’s role in Society. In the rather narrow nature of current postgraduate, and even more so, postdoctoral training these young people deserve better than they are getting.

In the twenty first century our lives are being affected, for better or for worse, by developments in science, technology and engineering, or rely on these disciplines to meet present and future threats. Thus, for example, one may think of genetic modification to improve production of crops to feed an ever increasing world population; of developments in stem-cell biology offering better understanding of diseases and new treatments for otherwise serious and intractable medical conditions; of better understanding of embryology and its increasing contribution to reproductive medicine; and, of course, the response to climate change which is of concern from many different directions.  Yet there is often an apparent disconnect between our policy-makers in Government and Parliament,  on the one hand,  and the scientific and engineering communities on the other. This needs to be corrected.  There would be much to be gained for the nation if these two elements of our public life could be brought closer together to create some better more joined-up thinking.   So where should we start?

First perhaps at the laboratory bench.  Today the imperative, as far as research funding is concerned, is for our universities to focus on achieving “high research ratings” through their publications in premier league journals in order to attract greater levels of funding.  This is of course not in itself a bad objective except that, in the process, development of the future careers of the PhD students and Postdocs, and therefore the long term health of the UK’s broader “science base,” receives scant attention.  This is despite the fact that there are insufficient career posts in academia, as highlighted above, or in industrial research for them to fill.  Many postgraduates and postdocs will inevitably therefore need to seek to deploy their skills in fields other than research. Because of this we believe that that there should be a widening of their training experience from merely focussing on the pursuit of the supervisors research, and the generation of point-scoring research papers for publication, to fitting them for roles as scientists outside of mainstream research.

Postdocs should be encouraged to think about other broader matters including how their scientific knowledge and understanding may have wider application in Society. They should be encouraged to see the relevance, political consequences and wider applicability of science and technology in general, and the relevance of their science in particular, to wider national policy issues.  In particular, they should be making contributions by being proactive in providing understandable explanations of their science to Government ministers, MPs, and those arts – and humanities – based senior civil servants who ultimately make the policy decisions.

It would also be of enormous benefit if the applicability of the concepts behind the “scientific method” to other areas of life, and in particular the making and evaluation of policy, could be more widely appreciated. It is important that there should be a correct understanding by our policy-makers of the nature of scientific evidence.  There needs to be an understanding that in many areas the published research is rarely black or white, and that there are still areas of enormous uncertainty and debate even among the experts.  We can think, for example of the research in the areas of climate change, of the impact of insecticides on ee and other pollinator health the role of badgers in the spread of bovine TB.  At best what the policy-makers have available is a consensus which may be based on many different views, rather than on a sound understanding of the science behind the area.  The scientist therefore has a role in interpreting this evidence for them, and bringing some perspective, particularly in areas where there is a significant body of evidence pointing in a different direction.  We suggest therefore that, as an essential ingredient of their training during their postgraduate and Postdoctoral  years, these young researchers should be learn something of the way that policy is made and assessed – and the routes through which they may provide information and advice to the policy makers.

It was to make some contribution to bridging that serious gap between the science and engineering community, on the one hand, and the processes whereby policy is made on the other, that the Newton’s Apple Foundation was established. Over the last four years our organisation has run workshops in some universities, in Westminster and elsewhere to introduce young researchers to the world of policy-making. Through these workshops postgraduate students and post-doctoral researchers are brought into contact with politicians and civil servants, and others involved in policy-making. The main objective of the Foundation being to help the participants to understand that they can also have a part to play in the policy making processes. They are shown how they can help Government and Parliament to understand the scientific and engineering issues involved in policies being considered, or under development. Importantly, they are also given some positive examples of where scientists, often, but not exclusively, working through their learned Societies, have influenced policy thinking. For example the influence they had on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, the control of light pollution and bringing about the reconsideration of an EU directive which would have had the effect of preventing the use of MRI scanners throughout Europe.  Over this four years approaching 1,000 students have been taken part in these workshops, and the demand for them is increasing.

The feedback received from workshop participants has shown, firstly, that the great majority of the postgrads and postdocs come to the workshops quite unaware of how policy is made. Secondly, as a result of their attendance they feel that their knowledge of the policy-making processes has been significantly improved, and the workshops do awaken their interest in, and appreciation of, the importance of scientific and technological evidence and advice in policy-making. It is quite evident from the feedback that these young researchers do want to understand the workings of the policy makers, and become involved and make their own contribution where relevant.  Some are even beginning to think about creating their future careers in these areas rather than in pure research.  However what Newton’s Apple is doing is but a start to the process of widening the interests of our young researchers, and awakening an interest in the application of their scientific expertise to areas of Society other than pure research.

We suggest therefore that it is time that the value of PhD and Postdoc training needs to be recognised as a way of preparing scientists and technologists for careers outside the purely academic.  What is now needed is the investment in the provision of wider training and experience for these young people in order to open up for them the vista of other areas of useful employment, outside the University and research environment.  As an integral part of their training these young researchers should be made aware of, and even given exposure to, other career options. In areas such as, for example, in industrial research, in development and management, in the civil service – scientific or policy making branches, and even as scientists working in quite non-scientific roles in businesses and the professions.  They can be the bringers of the scientific ways of thinking to other areas of analysis and decision making. In short they should be helped to understand where science and technology fit into the cultural and industrial life of the nation, and where they will find a useful role in which there knowledge and experience will be valued.

Finally there is the question of how many PhDs are being trained in our Universities, and serious the mismatch with the number of established posts in academia, where ambitions their usually lie, for them to fill.

Although the Newton’s Apple Workshops are making a real contribution to widening the students’ knowledge, and awakening an interest in those who attend, they inevitably can only scrape the surface. There should therefore be a wider availability of training of this sort as an integral part of the postgraduate scientist or engineer’s training whilst in Higher Education.

Dr Michael W. Elves, Chairman, Newton’s Apple Foundation (contact)

Dr Ian Gibson, President, Newton’s Apple Foundation (contact)

Read more about this on the Guardian Higher Education blog:

What is the scientist’s role in society and how do we teach it?

Michael W Elves, chairman of Newton’s Apple and Ian Gibson, it’s president, talk science and society on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog:

The importance of young scientists understanding the UK’s Policy machines

The importance of young scientists understanding the UK’s

Policy machines – a personal view

Dr Ian Gibson MP I have a strong feeling that the issue of House of Lords Reform and the expertise within it fails to excite not just the British public but particularly the hundreds of young scientists who are beavering away at research across the UK.  My experience with them, through the charity Newton’s Apple, is that they wish to understand how grants are awarded, cuts are made and how legislation is enacted and determined and particularly in the case of new measures that have a science content or will impact on the scientific community.  By introducing them to the work of learned societies, previous and current members of the Parliamentary Select Committees as well as civil servants by meeting in Parliament and within their local universities, Newton’s Apple gives post docs and research students a taste for these matters.  Whether it is how money is given to bee research, how the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act developed and how civil servants get on with it despite the pontifications in Parliament, they come to some understanding of the processes.  They certainly wish to know more and come to believe that doing research just on its own without this understanding weakens their role in the scientific educational process.   They are the most important sector in scientific research since they do so much of the ground work while their supervisors are administering or serving on committees and are gradually taken away from the bench.

My own feeling is that in Parliament it is unlikely that there will ever be the understanding of how science is done and how it feels to be a young researcher, given the nature of recruitment into political parties and into Westminster.  It is not enough to have achieved a GCSE or O’Level in Science to have come to terms with an understanding of the scientific process, its frustrations and its essential nature.  There needs to be much more interaction with those who are interested in science and have an understanding of Westminster life with younger people who are able to break down the barriers between the different laboratories in their work places.  They can work together to influence MPs and others more effectively from outside Parliament.  When I say that the House of Lords reforms seem irrelevant this is not to deny the excellence of the scientific experts there who have been through the mill.  But many of them get disillusioned with the parliamentary process and indeed for my part as an MP I regularly questioned what the role of the scientific expert was in the House of Lords.  They may have raised the level of the debate but their effectiveness was always in question.  The political understanding of scientists was brought home to me at the Latitude Festival recently when Brian Cox, for all his virtues, completely dodged the question of how science could produce, for example, weapons of mass destruction, and this too came from a basic understanding of physics as much as the Higgs Bosun did.  Scientists at all levels somehow still think that the social context cannot divert the usefulness, or otherwise,  of scientific discoveries.   This is why I think it has become easy for people to talk about the virtue and values of science in our economies without really addressing the serious social implications of how science can be used in society.  The younger generation certainly appreciates this as a contradiction when it is put in front of them.

I would welcome the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) if it took time to interact with our young scientific community and discuss these issues. We should discuss the successes, the failures, the campaigns and indeed the whole contradictory nature of science in its interaction with politicians.  The lack of understanding of each other is a mammoth problem yet to be solved and until we do we shall never settle the so-called issue of the Public Understanding of Science and vice versa.  I doubt if the election of the Lords in these circumstances would make any difference to the understanding of how important these are to the economic growth of the UK and also our standing on the world stage which is, of course, high but also vulnerable to current political policies. 

To summarise, then, my view is that we should concentrate on developing an understanding with the younger community and perhaps even excite them enough to enter the political field at various levels e.g. the Civil Service, charities or NGOs.  Politicians steeped in their dark arts are unlikely to understand the complex, frustrating but challenging world at the laboratory bench.

Ian Gibson