Speech at Science and the Parliament 2015

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 @ 3:07PM

Kezia used her speech today at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s event entitled Science and the Parliament 2015 to highlight the lack of women studying STEM subjects and going on to pursue a career in the sector. She also said that unless we can bring a lot more women into these subjects we risk locking half of the population out of the high-skilled, high-paying jobs of the future.


I want to thank the Royal Society of Chemistry for inviting me to speak today.

Dynamic earth is a truly inspirational place.

For a non-scientist like me, it brings the story of our planet and our country to life, from the big bang to the formation of Arthur’s Seat.

And it does the same for thousands of visitors every year.

It seems to me that there is something fitting about a Science centre keeping an eye on our parliament – although some of you might feel it is ironic, given the way science is sometimes treated next door.

Let’s face it, Dynamic earth has done so much more for Science than the Scottish Parliament has arguably done for politics.

We could do with learning some lessons from you.

There is another reason Dynamic earth and the Royal Society of Chemistry inspire me and should inspire many more women.

Dr Hermione Cockburn, is scientific director here, and Professor Lesley Yellowlees, was the first female President of the RSC.

Unfortunately, just as having three women at the top of Scottish politics does not equal gender equality in Parliament.

Hermione and Lesley are great role models but still the exception to the rule in science, especially science at a senior level.

I spend a lot of time arguing that we need to change that.

Because in science and in academia in general, men continue to dominate.

Just 23% of the professors at our universities are female.
Think about that for a moment.

Despite making up more than half the population, fewer than one quarter of our university professors are women.

Fewer than one third of our university principals are women.

Years of government failure to redress the gender balance has led us to this point.

The institutional road blocks to women taking up these roles must be demolished.

Progress has been made, but it isn’t enough. And if we look at the students of today we can see the problems continuing.

We know that we need 147,000 engineers in Scotland by 2022.

Yet just a tiny fraction of those studying engineering, science and technology, preparing for the jobs of the future, are women.

Unless we can bring a lot more women into these subjects we risk locking half of the population out of the high skilled, high paying jobs of the future.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century we need to invest for the long term.

We need to give as many young people as possible the skills they need to make their way in the world. That means addressing how we teach science in our primary schools.

We live in a changing world, less than 20 years ago the internet was only just beginning to impact on people’s lives.

Few households had dial up connections. Connections they used, to spend minutes waiting to download blocky looking pages of text.

Today, almost everyone in the room has instant access to the internet on mobile phones in their pockets, it’s a technology way beyond what we could have imagined 20 years ago.

We use technology in ways that previous generations would find inconceivable, and few of us can imagine how technology might impact our lives over the next 20 years.

In the Forward to the current issue of Science Scotland Professor Jason Rees of the University of Edinburgh, tells us that:

“The revolution wrought by computers hasn’t been and gone - it’s only just started.”

He should know.

While I don’t know what the next 20 years will bring, we do know that young people in school today will have jobs that we haven’t even thought of yet.

They will work in occupations not yet invented using technologies that will be as alien to us as the idea of a mobile app developer would have been when I was at school just 20 years ago.

Technologies like 3D printing, have the potential to transform manufacturing and with it, international trade, the distribution of goods around the world and of course the occupations and careers that go with them.

In advance of Scottish Labour’s conference we held a competition called “My Scotland”

We invited 16 and 17 year olds across the country to imagine Scotland in 20 years time.

The futures those young people imagined were all different, some optimistic and hopeful, others dystopian.

What all of them had in common was an appreciation that the decisions we make today will have profound implications on tomorrow’s world.

I am in politics to make those decisions.

When I think of the future I imagine a Scotland embracing new technology, building on its strengths in science and engineering, providing good work.

I imagine a world in which talent, ambition and effort are rewarded, where education in science and technology are nurtured.

I imagine a world where knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge are the cornerstones of a successful country.

When you ask about the role of science in the Scottish Parliament, I ask about the role of science in the world.

Science isn’t an endeavour confined by the boundaries of Scotland, it is truly international.

What you discover in Glasgow or Aberdeen isn’t just shared globally; it is likely to have been the result of collaboration between institutions and scientists across the world.

A discovery made in India or Australia is just as relevant to us today, just as important and just as vital to our future as any made here.

Sometimes, in politics, we look as though we are only concerned about the practical application of science in innovation, in new technologies and in new products.

I want to assure you that we do recognise the vital role primary research plays in laying the foundations for our future and the value that it has in advancing the frontiers of our knowledge.

We need to ask ourselves both; how can scientific endeavour best serve the progress of our nation, and how can the nation best serve the progress of scientific endeavour?

The future of Scotland can be one in which we embrace what is coming, in which we prepare our people to make their way in it, and in which the economy takes advantage of and adapts with the new technology

But colleagues, there is another reason why politicians need to pay more attention to science.

I believe in the power of politics to change lives, to make society better, that’s why I’m in the Scottish Labour Party.

The other thing which shapes our world is science and technology.

They are held together by a belief that we are the agents of our own destiny, by understanding society, and organising it better, and by understanding nature and manipulating it in ever more sophisticated ways.

There was a time when Scots understood this and excelled at it. Carl Sagan said of James Clerk Maxwell:

“Maxwell’s equations have had a greater impact on human history than any ten presidents.”

How disappointing then that as we have redesigned the politics of our nation to increase its power to shape the future of our society. We seem to have disconnected politics from the science which holds out the prospect of redesigning the world around us, and which can maximise the benefits of the new forms of work and economic progress which will follow.

I imagine you will have been as baffled as I was by the decision of the Scottish Government to announce a blanket ban on GM crops without even asking for Scientific advice, without listening to, or consulting their own Scientific advisor.

That is not simply a failure of evidence based policy making.  It is contempt for the scientific community.

Perhaps we should not be surprised given the many months the government has seen fit to get by without a chief scientific advisor at all, given the fact that the post when filled will have access only to a junior minister not the open door to the First Minister it once had.

I cannot promise that Labour will never make a political judgement about whether or not to follow “scientific advice” but I can guarantee that a Labour party led by me will always want to hear the scientific advice. Will always listen to it and that it will be my door which would be open to the chief scientist.

I can promise you too that investment in the teaching of STEM, and whatever it takes to shift the gender imbalance in disciplines like engineering will be at the heart of my leadership, be that in opposition or government.

Yes because I have a passion to tackle inequality. But crucially because it is an economic imperative.

I said from day one that my concern was the future of Scotland, and above all the life chances of our next generations.

Those chances will depend on Scotland making itself once again a true nation of science, yes built on highly skilled, hi-tech jobs and engineering, but also built on respect for, understanding of and pride in the ideas of science and the scientists who pursue them wherever they may lead.

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