On Tuesday 14 November, we hosted our annual For Thought event at One Moorgate Place. For Thought is the British Science Association’s (BSA) thought leadership programme for senior professionals in science, business, policy and civil society. It provides a platform for cross-sector discussions on the most pressing challenges of the day.

This year’s theme, Science, innovation, and national priorities: Deciding the future of food, education, and health gave speakers and attendees an opportunity to reflect on the issues that truly impact us all. 

The programme for the day was split into three panel discussions each followed by questions from attendees:

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Opening reflections

To begin the day’s event and set the tone for the discussion, host and moderator Alok Jha, the science and technology editor at the Economist, invited environmental journalist Gaia Vince and Gillian Tett, an anthropologist and columnist for the Financial Times, to the stage.  

Jha asked both journalists to discuss what they felt were key moments from 2023, and their predictions for the upcoming year. Vince chose the year's extreme temperatures and the associated disasters, which revealed to so many that the impacts of the climate crisis can now be felt everywhere on the planet. When she first starting working in this field, Vince explained, climate change was something experienced far away in the global south. No longer. This year, global mean temperature is set to be the highest on record.

 “For me, this is the moment that we woke up to the fact that we’re in a different world.”

Her thoughts on the future focused on the need for collaboration and proactive approach to the crisis. We need to develop not only technology innovation, Vince said, but social innovation and cooperative abilities. Rising temperatures will cause mass human migration – are we ready to respond?

It’s that innovation that has been lacking, the governmental response to climate crisis.

For Tett, her response to Jha’s question can be summed up in four words – militarisation of consumer technology. Tett’s key moment was Ukraine using a drone boat to sink Russian boats landing in Crimea.

Science has been fuelled by bottom-up innovation which, Tett explained, is why the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not gone as predicted – Ukraine has been more efficient than expected in defending itself. This is not a bad thing, but what are the wider implications of highly powerful weapons being easily accessible?

Her thoughts on the future aligned somewhat with Vince’s; can we use this wave of innovation, including artificial intelligence (AI), to tackle climate change? For this to happen, she said, scientists must stand up and be counted.

“Get involved in policy and politics,” she implored scientists, or it will be a long journey to ensuring innovation is used for good.

Chapter 1: The future of education

Caitlin Bentley, a lecturer in AI Education at Kings College London, began by exploring the dichotomy AI in education presents. On the one hand, AI could be leveraged to make teaching and learning more personalised, which could benefit many. On the other hand, the landscape of AI is unregulated and driven by commercial interests. Bentley’s hope for the future of education is that we don’t blindly let AI encroach – rather we mindfully use it to deliver an equitable, sustainable future. We need to empower learners and educators to question the impact of AI on our lives and society.

Mary Curnock Cook, Chair of Pearson Education Ltd, believes it’s imperative that we infuse education with helpful technology. That is, after all, the nature of the modern world – surely we should be preparing children and young people for this reality.

She expressed her incredulity that so many student assessments and exams are still done with pen and paper, even for computer science, branding this “ridiculous”. We need more innovative examination approaches, she said.

We need courage, vision and leadership to bring education into 21st century. The alternative won’t support growth in the economy or provide the 21st century skills people need to flourish in their careers.

Education and skills campaigner, Praful Nargund, agreed. Everyone deserves to benefit from the digital revolution, he said. But for this to happen, we must acknowledge the digital divide; people don’t have equal access to devices and equal knowledge levels of how to use them.

Around 2 million households struggle to afford internet access. This has a knock-on effect on who goes on to work in the technology sector; there is an overwhelming majority of men from professional backgrounds.

To shape a better future where people with different backgrounds can bring their unique perspectives to the table, we need to incorporate digital innovation into the curriculum and improve digital literacy in teachers.

Anthony Seldon, Head of Epsom College, also spoke about equality and equity of education opportunity. We have an education system – including an assessment process – designed in the 19th century. This is failing young people, failing the country and failing science, he said.

The current system tells people what they “can’t do”, rather than basing education on curiosity and finding the individual aptitudes of young people.

At the moment, significant numbers of students are leaving school without many GCSEs and with mental health issues. Teachers are leaving the profession in high numbers, disillusioned by the system. Radical change is needed and technology can help, but we must make sure it works in the interests of the many, not the few.   

Chapter 2: The future of health

Natalie Banner opened Chapter 2 by introducing the audience to Genomics England. The Director of Ethics explained the role of Genomics England in partnering with the NHS to provide whole genome sequencing diagnostics, strengthening the relationship between research and care, and bringing innovation into the healthcare service.

“The critical thing about the model is if we discover something that can help patients, we can deliver that into the service.”

This process involves working with patients, building a relationship founded on trust, and addressing healthcare inequalities.

Sharmila Nebhrejani, Chair of NICE, an organisation which “helps practitioners and commissioners get the best care to patients, fast, while ensuring value for the taxpayer”, then covered NICE’s top three priorities: assessing new treatments, their cost and the long-term quality of life they provide; supplying clinical guidelines to professionals on how to utilise medical innovations; and helping institutions to track the uptake of new treatments.

She discussed the growing trend of a strong emphasis on self-care virtual wards. Patients are becoming increasingly knowledgeable and are keen to have a voice when it comes to their care, which is evolving in the form of reliable, patient-facing apps being used to treat people in their homes. 

Chief Scientist and Deputy Director at Health Data Research UK, Cathie Sudlow, followed this by sharing the need for more effective and consensual sharing of health data. Lots of different personal data relevant to our health are generated across the health system, for example in general practices and hospitals, and across other government departments. The data from different sources often exist in isolation – they are not linked up and integrated to maximise insights. If they were to be, this could provide many benefits to patients, practitioners and researchers.

For example, linking data from hospitals and general practices to data from the Department of Education could help us understand the impact of poor health on education outcomes and the impact of different educational opportunities on later life health, Sudlow mused.

We have to understand health needs across all of society. Through use of data that is inclusive of everyone, we can make improvements for everyone.

Rachel Sylvester, Chair of the Times Health Commission, said that with the scientific innovation happening in healthcare, there is lots to be optimistic about. We’re entering a new age of cures.

Where Sylvester sees the future of healthcare going is the transfer of power from clinicians to patients, and using technology – including AI – to make decisions that aren’t just about funding and cuts.

She echoed Sudlow’s thoughts about the need for more data linkage; there are areas of excellence she said, that are not linked up. She cited a system in Estonia which uses patient portals containing all their information, and said a majority of people surveyed in the UK would be happy to have their data shared between clinicians, if that benefited them.

Chapter 3: The future of food

Tim Lang, Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at City, University of London, spoke about “civil food resilience” and preparing the food system to respond to an increasing likelihood of “shock” events such as climate change. A big part of enabling civil food resilience will be public engagement and making sure people know how to respond when shocks happen. 

Tim also described the UK food system as partly a legacy of 1930s science, which told us we could just “produce more” to feed more people affordably. Today that approach no longer fits. Science now tells us to address food ecosystems, societal and public health impacts. This probably requires more diversity from currently highly centralised food systems. The new picture is more complex and still not receiving clear governance and accountability for change.

Balwinder Dhoot, Director of Sustainability at Food and Drink Federation, discussed the need to create a secure and sustainable food system, and the urgent need to decarbonise.

Around 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food systems, he said, and this is a very difficult issue to deal with. We must restore nature and promote biodiversity – the whole supply chain needs to work together to achieve this.

This will require private investment but the government must do its bit too. We need coherent policies and well-designed regulation. The UK has ambitions to become a global science superpower; it’s imperative the government draws on our innovation and research to support the transition to a more secure and sustainable food system.

International Managing Director at Forum for the Future, Hannah Pathak, agrees that our approach to food in the UK isn’t working; it’s not delivering social or environmental benefits.

The goals of the food system are to have high production, high consumption and low costs. But this is resulting in many farmers barely breaking even and huge detrimental impacts on the environment. We need to shift our thinking about the food system in a way that takes the planet into account, as well as providing fair livelihoods for farmers. Creating a more sustainable system must done equitably. This means supporting farmers financially as they are often the part of the food system least able to bear the financial risks of transition, but are the ones most directly involved in doing so, and overall ensuring financial flows are oriented towards regenerative agricultural practices, which in turn contribute to net zero goals.

Science, innovation and national priorities

Our speakers agree the systems currently delivering education, health and food are poorly equipped to serve the needs of the country. Inequity permeates the practices we implement and regulations dictating them, yet innovation and modern advances in science could breathe life into these systems, creating structures to better support society.

The futures of education, health and food all depend on transformative policies informed by science. Communities, the environment and future generations must also be front of mind in decision and policymaking.

With thanks to our content partner, Genomics England.

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