Voice of the Future is a unique event organized by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the molecular bioscience community. It provides early-career scientists from across science, technology, engineering and mathematics with the rare opportunity to visit the Houses of Parliament and ask parliamentarians their science policy questions in this environment. The 2024 event took place on 12 March, bringing together learned societies from across the sector. Lili Illman and Sagar Batra attended on behalf of the Biochemical Society, and here they share their experiences.

Lili Illman is a biochemistry student at the University of Bath with a keen interest in addressing global challenges and fostering community engagement as well as a more scientific interest in infection and immunity. As an ambassador for The Brilliant Club and the Biochemical Society, she has had the opportunity to explore her passion for advocating for positive change. Her involvement in events like Voice of the Future for the Royal Society of Biology reflects her curiosity about the intersection of science and society. In addition to her academic pursuits, Lili is deeply involved in extracurricular activities such as serving as the Lead of Science and Innovation at the Bath Time as well as academic representative of her subject.

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What initially made you interested in the event and spurred you to apply to attend?

What initially sparked my interest in the Voice of the Future event and motivated me to apply was my deep-seated commitment to advancing evidence-based policies and combating scientific misinformation, especially within underprivileged communities. As a biochemistry student and the Lead of Science and Innovation at Bath Time magazine, I found the event’s distinctive approach – providing young scientists with a direct line of communication to prominent political figures– an unparalleled avenue through which I could play a part in ensuring that the voices that are often sidelined in policy deliberations get heard. I saw this as a chance to bring forward the concerns and ideas from the communities I represent and am a part of, including a vibrant, diverse student body. It was about leveraging this rare dialogue between young scientists and policy makers. Additionally, in an era rife with misinformation, I felt compelled to address the critical role that clear communication of scientific research plays in public understanding and policy making. This aligns with my commitment to combating misinformation and underscores the importance of integrating scientific literacy into educational curricula.

What was your question for the politicians, and why did you want to ask that specifically?

The question I posed to the politicians was, "What role do you envision for the UK government in ensuring that scientific research is communicated clearly to the general public, thereby preventing speculation and misinformation?" This question came from a place of recognizing the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to tackle scientific misinformation in today’s digital age, marked by the widespread influence of social media and artificial intelligence (AI). Given my commitment to cultivating a more knowledgeable and equitable society by addressing misinformation, this query was of paramount importance to me. It was also inspired by the manner in which scientific research was presented by the government during the COVID-19 crisis – I was intrigued about how Parliament planned to learn from this experience.

What answer did the panel give? Was this what you expected?

The panel’s response underscored the importance of a collective endeavour involving the government, educational bodies, and the scientific community to effectively foster scientific literacy and counteract misinformation. While their answer was in line with what I anticipated, I found their insights into the intricacies of integrating such initiatives within the current educational infrastructures particularly enlightening. Viscount Stansgate notably mentioned that it falls upon the government to lead the way in elucidating issues to the public to circumvent speculation. A crucial part of their response highlighted the challenges of adapting scientific policy in response to the continually evolving realms of AI and social media.

Lord Drayson and Viscount Stansgate. Credit Royal Society of Biology.

Were there any other questions you found particularly interesting?

Numerous questions from fellow attendees were both stimulating and insightful. Questions that delved into the nexus of science and social justice, as well as strategies to enhance diversity and inclusion within the STEM fields, particularly resonated with me. A significant discussion point was how to attract and retain scientific talent in the UK, with responses shedding light on ways to encourage more British students into science and attract international students. The emphasis on nurturing young, enthusiastic scientists as a cornerstone for establishing the UK as a science and innovation hub was compelling. This focus on overhauling the curriculum from the ground up highlighted the necessity of educating and allocating resources towards promising students and anyone with a passion for science – the future scientists our world needs.

What will you take away from the event?

The Voice of the Future event was an immensely enriching experience that reinforced the critical role of active participation in science policy discussions. Leaving the event, I felt a renewed sense of purpose and drive to continue advocacy for evidence-based policies, fight against scientific misinformation and work towards greater inclusivity within the scientific community. The session not only inspired and motivated me in my other roles, such as being an ambassador for the Brilliant Club, but also significantly fuelled my passion for science policy and journalism. The members of Parliament in attendance, especially Viscount Stansgate and Lord Drayson, did an outstanding job of educating us on science policy and its development. They particularly emphasized the crucial role young scientists play in society, highlighting our responsibility in shaping the future of science policy. This experience has profoundly deepened my interest in scientific policy, affirming my belief in the impactful contributions young scientists can and should make. Ultimately, my participation in the Voice of the Future event was driven by a desire to make a meaningful impact in the scientific community and beyond. It was an opportunity to champion the causes I am passionate about on a larger stage, inspiring future generations of scientists to engage in policy discussions and advocate for a more inclusive and informed society. This aim was met, and I left looking forward to the future and feeling more passionate and inspired than ever.

Sagar is a doctoral candidate and an associate at the University of Nottingham, under the guidance of Dr Ivan Campeotto. His research is primarily focused on elucidating the biomolecular mechanisms of macromolecules, with a particular emphasis on proteins in diseased conditions. He has a background in protein structural biology and is dedicated to advancing his expertise in this field. For his PhD, Sagar has been involved in the development of a structure-guided vaccine targeting Chagas disease, an epidemic in Central and South America.

What initially made you interested in the event and spurred you to apply to attend?

It sounds cliché but having a background in academia, courtesy of my mother, the apple has not fallen far from the tree! As a dedicated PhD student in protein structural biology, I possess a natural inclination towards academic discussions, especially when it’s about my research interests and how they could be translational or beneficial to the public. The Biochemical Society provided me an excellent opportunity to participate in such discussions at the House of Parliament in London at the Voice of the Future, organized by the Royal Society of Biology, where the discussion was led by the members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Which questions did you find particularly interesting?

Chi Onwurah MP highlighted some crucial points about international talent, with the idea that immigration corresponds to innovation, and emphasized the importance of supporting long-term investment in research.

The conversation about (AI) and data protection, led by Katherine Fletcher MP and Stephen Metcalfe MP at the event, touches a critical issue of utilizing AI technologies – as AI develops, such advancements could be incorporated into various sectors, such as healthcare, to vastly improve the lives of the patients. They mentioned the importance of managing the sensitive information with the utmost care, and of course, the privacy and trust of the public on how well their data is protected.

Furthermore, Carol Monaghan MP brought up the EU Horizon scheme, an important initiative meant to significantly enhance the research capabilities across the UK borders. This scheme promises new funding opportunities that would help in establishing new collaborations and drive research, which I and many other researchers can relate to the importance of.

Chi Onwurah MP. Credit Royal Society of Biology.

What will you take away from the event?

Overall, attending the event was a wholesome experience, helping me to understand the views of policy makers in areas like technological advancements and healthcare.

Grammarly was used by Lili Illman in her contribution to this article for checking spelling, grammar and for optimisation of sentence structure.

Published by Portland Press Limited under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND)