The theme of this year’s For Thought programme is Building resilience: the role of science and innovation in creating a sustainable future with the event series broken down into three Chapters: ‘Building resilience’, ‘Innovating for the future’ and ‘Creating environmental prosperity’. The British Science Association (BSA) invited a host of experts and commentators to speak around these topics in March, sparking some interesting lines of discussion.

Our speakers came from a variety of backgrounds – from publicly funded organisations and academia to private companies and those with commercial goals and objectives – providing a wide range of perspectives. For more details on each Chapter see the full programme here.

Despite each Chapter focusing on a different aspect of the 'building resilience' theme, there were notable overlaps in thinking. It was clear from our speakers that, to build more resilient societies and to do so sustainably, there are common considerations to be taken into account. The BSA believes we, as a society, should be incorporating these recommendations and reflections in future planning and policymaking.

“Build better”, rather than “Build back better”

Said Professor Sir David Omand, former Director of GCHQ. Omand argues that we shouldn’t revert to pre-pandemic ways of working. As we have seen in the fallout of the coronavirus crisis, the “old normal” was not good enough, and therefore our systems and institutions need rebuilding from scratch. This point was echoed by many of our speakers across the three Chapters. Samah Khalil, the Youth Mayor of Oldham, recalled her experience starting a university course where there were considerable gaps in students’ knowledge in spite of a largely standardised education system in the UK. Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, made the point that the very foundations of financial institutions are to increase wealth for the wealthy; they don’t exist to support poorer citizens.

Adopting a “whole systems” approach

Taking a “whole systems” view, rather than fixing parts of a broken system, is crucial to developing strategies that will enable us to succeed in building better. Whether this is the ensuring there is a concerted global effort in addressing the climate emergency or enlisting groups from each facet of society in the pandemic recovery, rebuilding should adopt a holistic view of the problem in order to solve it as wholly as possible. Lord David Willetts stressed the necessity of systems modelling to obtain the data required in informing how we operationalise the plans to “building better”.

Innovative innovation

Previously unimaginable progress in vaccine research and development has demonstrated that our approach to innovation needs rethinking. The existing clinical regulatory framework was upturned and as a result we achieved the unthinkable – safe and viable vaccines for a novel virus in less than a year. Going forward, we must be open to overhauling the systems and processes we are accustomed to. We are already seeing action from the Government around this as the Science Minister, Amanda Solloway MP, revealed that the new Advanced Research & Innovation Agency (ARIA) would be “free to fail”. Funding high-risk, high-reward projects encourages the innovative curiosity and creative zeal we need in order to overcome the biggest challenges facing society.

Assess the risks, and act to mitigate them

Regarding the risks themselves, the UK is extremely good at conducting research on what they are. The recommendations to mitigate the risks, however, need to be taken seriously and actioned. Sir David King (former Chief Scientific Advisor and former UK Special Envoy on Climate Change), Nero Ughwujabo (former Special Adviser to Theresa May on Social Justice, Young People & Opportunities) and Professor Omand all commented on their experiences of horizon scanning and planning ahead for different scenarios whilst working with Government. The intentions to future-proof and mitigate risks exist; it is whether – and when – the plans are implemented that is the true challenge.

Prioritise reducing inequalities

Though more attention has been drawn to this issue due to and during the pandemic (relating for the most part to health outcomes and economic stability) there is a general need to reduce social inequality. According to Lord David Willetts, education is our most powerful long-term tool in fixing this, and Ann Cairns agrees that a Future Generations Framework (as used in Wales) is one tool that can support “levelling up”. As we move towards net zero emissions, we should also ensure future environmental policies bring about a just transition; that any burden and benefits are felt fairly by all groups in society.

The role of communities and underrepresented groups in decision making

Decision makers should engage people from underrepresented groups in decision-making circles. Engaging with these groups – ethnic minority communities and young people in particular – is important in making a significant difference in building a more resilient and equitable post-pandemic society; ensures the most innovative and entrepreneurial minds are equipped to enable the UK to continue leading in R&D across industries; and leads to behaviour changes en masse that will support our environmental objectives such as reducing carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.

Dr Afsheen Kabir Rashid (Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Repowering London) and Dr Emily Shuckburgh (Director of Cambridge Zero) strongly advocate increased involvement and integration of communities when putting together plans investing in a “greener” future. They believe it is important for the UK to address and respond to specific regional needs, within the national and international context, in order to continue leading and influencing the world’s environmental policy agenda.

The final Summit, Build better, takes place in June. For more information and to sign up for updates, visit the website.