I was pleased to have the opportunity to take part in a Westminster Hall debate this week about STEM subjects and our crucial science and discovery centres.
Here is a copy of my speech:
“It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) on bringing this important debate to the House. It goes without saying that our nation’s regional science and discovery centres play a crucial role in the country’s STEM success, delivering inspirational science learning to schoolchildren and families, and working in partnership with schools, teachers, universities, businesses and local communities.
As a London MP, I know that many children in my constituency have been inspired on visits to the very popular Science Museum in South Kensington. Indeed, our own Mayor excelled at science and maths at A-level, and his original desire was to be a dentist. Look what happened to him: he is now the Mayor of London. Such inspirational visits have helped herald a generation of children and young people captivated by science and intent on a career in the UK’s promising scientific industries. It is these scientific industries we need to be doing our utmost to foster and support right now.
I know this all too well as a recipient of the Oxford-AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine. Professor Sarah Gilbert from Oxford University, who invented the vaccine, would have been inspired by the Science Museum, and I wonder whether she visited as a girl.
Many of those involved in the Oxford vaccine pipeline will have come through the state education sector and will have been inspired to pursue their dreams through visits to science museums, but I am deeply concerned about their future. Due to covid-19, science centres have mainly been closed since March and have had to make 50% to 80% of their education teams redundant in order to protect the long-term survival of their charities. These closures and redundancies have come when we most need our regional science centres to help with the educational recovery, to reduce inequality, to inspire young people from our most disadvantaged communities into science, and to encourage our young people into science and technology careers to support our industry and our learning.
At the same time, the Government have abandoned any pretence of having an industrial strategy and, as the Chair of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), has made clear:
“It is deeply concerning that at the very moment when the whole country recognises the importance of scientific research… that the science budget should be facing immediate and substantial cuts involving the cancellation of current research.”
We know that these cuts will undermine UK productivity. Every pound spent on research in the UK reaps a return of £1.60, and any cuts end up costing our economy millions.
Rather than saying, as the Prime Minister has done, that we have a successful covid-19 vaccine due to “greed” and “capitalism”—which could not be further from the minds of people such Professor Sarah Gilbert—the Government are well placed to recognise the contributions of British science and address the myriad challenges facing the sector. This must start with restating an industrial strategy with science, research and development and international collaboration at its heart. It must also have a holistic approach, recognising the challenges to the pipeline if science and discovery centres are unable to reach out and inspire the next generation of scientists.
British science has played a key role in shining a light out from the darkness and despair of this pandemic. Without action, we risk extinguishing the lights that will show us a path away from future challenges before they even begin.”