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: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/nov/04/science-in-society-policy-research

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

A case study by Ian Gibson

 

Can scientists have any influence on Government policy making?  

 A case study – The Making of the

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, 2008

 

Dr Ian Gibson MP

In May 2008 The Guardian ran the headline “MPs vote for hybrid embryos after Brown makes plea to make “moral endeavour.””  It went on to acknowledge that MPs were pushing back the boundaries of science in allowing the creation of interspecies – or “hybrid” – embryos which have a combination of human and animal DNA.  This technology allowed the injection of DNA from the nucleus of an adult human cell into a cow or rabbit egg from which the nuclear DNA had been removed.  The result is the creation of an embryo – a tiny ball of cells all of which would have more than 99% human DNA. Under the then current legislation, these could not be allowed to develop beyond 14 days.  However this is long enough for these hybrids to be used for the development of stem cells for research and avoided the use of scarce human eggs.  The other major policy decisions incorporated in what was to become the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 allowed the creation of saviour siblings. These are created by in-vitro fertilisation and were closely tissue matched with a sick sibling with the prospect of using multipotent cells obtained from the umbilical cord as transplants to treat the sibling.  A further major change was that the need for a father was to be replaced by the need for ‘supportive parenting’. 

The debates in the House of Commons when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was going through Parliament were often highly emotive.  This was particularly true when a group of MPs proposed amendments in an attempt to reduce the current time limit on abortion from 24 weeks to 22 and 20 weeks.  Although abortion was not an matter covered in the Bill, as it was a Bill intended to amend the  Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 which did deal with abortion the issue, they could be legitimately be raised.  However the amendments were not agreed and so the attempt failed. There was moral fury from some religious MPs who were eventually allowed to vote with their consciences under a free vote system in all parties on the most contentious issues in the Bill.

The background to what was to become the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 stems from scientific achievements in 1955.  Then Bob Edwards, a young PhD student in the Institute of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh, was working on the fertilisation of mouse eggs and their subsequent development.  In 1960 he started to study human fertilisation and in 1968 he achieved the fertilisation of a human egg.  He then teamed up with the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and in 1978 his work led to the birth at Oldham General Hospital of Louise Brown, the first so-called test tube baby. He was awarded Nobel Prize in 2010 and given a knighthood in 2012.   This development meant that infertile couples now had the possibility of having a baby.  This development was not welcomed by all and there was a huge outcry and hostility from many sources including the Roman Catholic Church.  The Government refused to support his research and he and Steptoe carried on their work in the private Bourne Hall clinic which they founded in Cambridge.  It is estimated that by 2010 about 4 million children had been born by IVF. 

It took four years, to 1982, for the Government to set up a committee, chaired by the philosopher, Mary Warnock, to look into the social and moral impact of this new technology.  Hundreds of interested individuals gave evidence to the committee and, following the publication of a White Paper in 1987, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was passed.  This Act provided for the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which was an independent public body and the first of its type in the world.  The HFEA regulated IVF treatment and human embryology research. It set out the terms of use of human embryos as well as the use of donation of sperm and eggs and their storage. It also issued licences for the creation of human embryos outside the body and their use in treatment and research.  Finally the HFEA was charged with keeping a database of all relevant research and treatment.  Despite the furore the Act was passed and the issue quietly slipped from the public gaze.  In the following years, for example in 2001, the HFEA established regulations which extended the purposes of embryo research and licensing to include knowledge about serious disease. 

These technologies were of course developing and necessitated a debate in Parliament. This debate, which was principally about embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, required the HFEA to consider the use of embryos necessary or desirable for these research purposes.  Attempts by the HFEA and opposition groups to resort to the law courts to determine the scope and use of these new technologies created a critical mood amongst the scientific community which required a further examination of the relevant laws. This lead to the passing of legislation in 2001  as a consequence of the novel technology that resulted in Dolly the Sheep. This Act forbade the cloning of human beings. There was also a requirement, determined initially by the HFEA, which enabled donor-conceived children, upon reaching the age of 18, to access the identity of their egg or sperm donor.  At the same time the European Union introduced common safety and quality standards for human tissues and cells across the Union and this was adopted by the UK in 2004.

Perhaps the most significant event however was in 2005 when the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, with a little guidance from Downing Street and the Dept of Health, conducted an Inquiry and reported on human reproduction technologies and the law.  The purpose of this Inquiry was to look at the then legal framework in the light of technological advances and recent changes in ethical and societal attitudes. The Committee received evidence from a variety of different bodies and individuals, including members of the scientific community, which was all taken into account in reaching its conclusions.  Some aspects of the draft report however were met with opposition from some members of the committee and at its final meeting, just before the 2005 General Election, a significant number of members of the committee attempted to derail the report in its final discussion phase. They tried to amend it by tabling some 76 amendments and there is no doubt that various groups from outside Parliament who opposed the new developments, including the Roman Catholic Church and some secular bodies, played a significant role in these events.  When at 6 p.m. it looked like the report might fail because of this fillybustering, Dr Brian Iddon, a member of the committee, called for a guillotine for 9.0 p.m. This would mean that there could be no more amendments taken, there would be no more discussion and a vote would be taken on the report. This was a novel situation for a Select Committee and senior clerks in the House of Commons had to be called in to check that this was an appropriate action.  The Guillotine succeeded and the discussion terminated, but it was only my casting vote as the Chairman which ensured that the Report was accepted and could go forward. This was clearly a dramatic time and the Government welcomed the report which enabled them to eventually develop the 2008 Act.

Later in 2005 the Department of Health carried out a public consultation on possible changes to the law and regulations relating to human reproductive technologies. This was based on a number of reviews, studies and reports, and particularly that of the Select Committee, dealing with the emerging technologies, developments on the international stage and public attitudes.  The results of this consultation, which had elicited 535 responses from various bodies and individuals, lead to the publication at the end of 2006 of a White Paper “Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: proposals for revised legislation (including establishment of the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos)”. Then, in May 2007, the Government published the Human Tissues and Embryos (draft) Bill which was intended to revise the law on assisted reproduction and embryology.   A joint Select Committee was set up to scrutinise this draft bill composed of members of both Houses of Parliament.  The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee also conducted a more detailed Inquiry into the Government’s proposals to regulate hybrid and chimera embryos. Both Committees took oral evidence and also received written evidence which again covered a wide range of views and opinions.  The Commons Select Committee reported in May 2007 and the Joint Committee’s report was published in August 2007.  Both reports were generally supportive of research in the field of human-animal embryos but within an effective regulatory regime, including some restrictions, and they were critical of the Government’s proposals for inter-species embryo research as being too restrictive.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill then took into account the recommendations of these Committees and covered issues including the regulated creation of hybrid embryos. It began its Parliamentary journey in the House of Lords in January 2007.  In November 2008 the Bill became law as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008.

The Act of 2008 revised the 1990 Act in significant ways.  It ensured complete regulation of the use and creation of human embryos outside the body, it banned the selection of the gender of offspring for moral and social reasons, it replaced the “need for a father” with the “welfare of the child”, allowed people in same sex relationships and unmarried couples to apply for an order to be treated as the parents of the child was born using a surrogate mother, and of course the one which created the most anger amongst opposition parties was allowing human admix embryos, that is with both human and animal material.  The HFEA was essential, it argued, in regulating this development. 

The debates in the House of Commons on issues such as the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos and saviour siblings were often emotive, with significant opposition particularly from some religious groups.  It is important to point out however that throughout the various Inquiry and debate processes the scientific community acted with one voice making their views known, explaining the science behind the new developments and providing a rationale for their positions.  The scientific learned Societies, the academies and Royal Colleges as well as individual scientists all provided powerful evidence and were joined by charities and patient groups who were concerned with human illnesses.  This had an important effect on the judgement of MPs on how to vote.  Ironically now we are hearing of the abandonment of the HFEA and its substitution by another committee.  It remains to be seen how effective this is.  However before the HFEA is dissolved it is considering the payment of compensation to donors, restricting the number of families a donor can donate to and, finally, deciding on a policy to reduce multiple births from fertility treatment.

There is little doubt that the current Act involved the input of many people and organisations with a wide range of different views but the role of the scientists was particularly important in providing the technical basis and understanding  – as The Guardian article points out.  There were times of despair and it could be thought sometimes that we were going too far to appease some of the religious groups and secular groups opposed to the new technology in this country. Had they had their way with regard to human/animal hybrids, for example, it would have had a profound and inhibitory effect on stem cell research in the UK. We could not have achieved the position of international pre-eminence in this area of science.  We would not be in a position to carry out significant research into the use of stem cells as therapies for some serious and life-threatening disease. However the careful explanations, arguments and campaigns paid off.  Further, as science continues to move on there will be an even greater need for Parliament to be informed of the nature and consequences of these new technologies and how they input into the social mores of this country. In this the scientific community must play a key role.  However it is for the Government and Parliament to ultimately decide, based on sound evidence, where the balance of views lies and the direction new law will take.

Dr Ian Gibson 

May 2012