Layla Moran was elected MP for Oxford West and Abingdon in this June’s General Election and the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for Education, Science & Young People. She read Physics at Imperial College and holds an MA in Comparative Education. Before becoming an MP she was a physics teacher. Layla also advocates evidence-based solutions to environmental issues like flooding and is a strong supporter of science innovation and investments. The Aldes communications officer, Shane Canning, caught up with her to chat about her priorities and some of the important issues in STEM at the moment.
What will be your priorities as Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Education, Science & Young People?
That’s very simple: that every child, no matter their background, can make the most out of life. I appreciate that sounds very simple, but actually when you unpick it and compare it against what happens now you realise that often policy falls short. For example, a lot of the education policy focuses on employers, teachers and parents. Fair enough, they are voters. But where are the children’s voices? Choice of schools for parents is all very well, but meanwhile subject choices in schools are diminishing due to budget cuts. When seen through the lens of the student, the choice agenda in my eyes is totally focusing on the wrong thing. By putting the children and learners at heart of policy, I believe you make better policy.
Famously, during the Brexit referendum Michael Gove said people were “sick of experts”, how important do you think experts and the evidence they generate are when making policy decisions?
Experts are critical. Ignore them at your peril. As we are beginning to see. Personally it’s the likes of Mr. Gove I am sick of.
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by the STEM community and industries in the coming years? And what will do you do to address them?
The STEM community is above all driven by a sense of purpose towards gaining knowledge to better understand our universe. History shows us that much of what the community thinks and discovers sets the tone for technological advancement sometime decades after it is conceived. I think one of the biggest issues is the existential threat posed by the mistrust of experts which in turn diminishes the value of scientific reasoning. For example, while the focus of much of the debate on Euratom is about brownouts and medical isotopes, it is also a quest for knowledge. To achieve sustainable fusion in my view will be as significant to humanity and discovery and putting a man on the moon was. Somehow that sense of discovery and purpose has been lost in the debate in recent years. I’d like to see that reignited and recognised in government. Not least by properly funding it – 2% above inflation should be the aim at the very least.
A 2014 report (PDF) by WISE found that an equal number of boys and girls studied STEM subjects at GSCE level, however, there was a drop off of girls studying STEM subjects at A level. Also, only 13% of those working in STEM occupations are women. What do you think should be done to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects and enter careers in this area?
The fact that girls like science up to GCSE doesn’t surprise me, because science is fun! And girls as just as good at it as boys. But from 16 on you start to think about your career. I think we need to start young and actively challenge gender stereotyping when it occurs. From adverts that have males being construction workers to children’s books, we expose children very early on to ideas about what they will and will not be. If girls believe they can be scientists and the world encourages them then they will be. But the challenge in this area is far from over I am afraid.
Climate change is one of the biggest problems faced by our planet right now. How do you think the government should be working with scientists and engineers to tackle this problem head on?
A good start would be for all ministers to fully get behind the agenda. The issue seems to be far less prominent than it ought to be. I simply don’t understand how the government seems to ignore the evidence in front of them. I’d like to see the climate change agenda be a strand in every government department. Think budgets cuts, but in this case carbon budgets. It should be a collective responsibility.