- 19 March 2014
The Universities and Science Minister David Willetts today defended the Coalition's record on science funding, science education and skills shortages in the face of questions from young scientists and engineers.
As part of the Society's annual Voice of the Future event, a panel of young researchers aged between 16 and 35 were invited to quiz a variety of key political figures, including the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor and members of the Science & Technology Select Committee.
Andrew Miller, chair of the committee, said there was "no other event like it on the planet" as proceedings got under way, streamed live on the Parliament.uk website.
Willetts was asked by young panel members about why the Government seems to be focused on research projects with direct economic impact. The minister assured the assembled panel that there was "no policy to move funding away from fundamental and curiosity-driven research".
"The impact agenda is about getting researchers to think about the potential implications of their research, not to get them to study something else," he said.
He was also forced to defend the Coalition's immigration policy when asked if it had damaged science and engineering in the UK by discouraging overseas students from studying here.
"We do not have a cap on the numbers of students who can benefit from coming here to study," he said. "We have heightened the criteria – for example they must have a certain standard of English, which ensure classes aren't held back for that reason. The challenge is to communicate around the world that if you do come to study you will get a warm welcome here."
Earlier Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, said the UK Government has "the best embedded science advice in any government in the world", in response to questions about using evidence in policy-making. But he said that politicians are often forced to make decisions on a time scale that means evidence is incomplete or not available.
Liam Byrne, the Shadow Minister for Universities, science and skills, pledged his full support to the idea of funding postgraduate education through Government-backed student loans. "Managers at Barclays and NatWest should not be in charge of who is funded for further study if we want to increase our skills base," he said.
Members of the Committee were asked why the development of GM crops was still being held back despite overwhelming evidence that they are safe. Committee member and Liberal Democrat MP David Heath said the EU was looking at allowing countries that want to use GM crops to use them, because most of Europe was being held back by countries such as Germany who are "completely unmovable on the issue".
The event, which involved around 100 young people representing 22 learned societies and institutions, is in its third year. Organised by the Society of Biology, this year's Voice of the Future was officially opened by the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, and is supported by several other societies and the Science & Technology Select Committee.