Like almost everyone everywhere, 2020 did not exactly turn out as we expected at the Foundation for Science and Technology. It started well enough – two excellent evening discussion events in January and February, one on facial recognition technology and the other on international research collaboration.
In late January, we decided that our March event should focus on the new virus that was sweeping China, and the potential biosecurity risks for the UK. In the following 8 weeks, Covid 19 spread across the world, and a week before our event, the UK went into a national lockdown. We certainly weren’t the only organisation to have to cancel an event on coronavirus because of coronavirus – though it’s fair to say that none of our potential audience were missing out on hearing about the topic, given 24/7 media coverage. And I myself experienced this miserable disease first-hand (I assume – testing was not widely available in March).
As well as our evening events, the Foundation was continuing its work running the first year of the Foundation Future Leaders programme, and a visit to the University of Strathclyde on 31 March was hastily converted into a series of online presentations, using a software programme I had previously never used before – Zoom. Nine months later, it seems like I’ve been using it all my life. That meeting was a success, and with online events meaning people did not have to travel, combined with an ability to record Zoom events to access later, we had more of the Future Leaders involved than we would have had with the physical event. We hastily planned and developed a series of online meetings to replace the original programme for the Foundation Future Leaders.
Our April event had been due to be on “prevention healthcare”, but the speakers were actively involved in the fight against Covid 19 and no longer all able to commit and the topic – which had seemed timely when we set it up – now seemed less relevant. That too got cancelled, but we were determined to relaunch our evening event programme in May. After several test runs on Zoom, we ran our first online event – on the effects of coronavirus on the environment – and used the opportunity of being online to have speakers from the USA and Sweden as well as the UK.
Back in May, such online discussion events seemed very new, at least to us, but as we and everyone one else adjusted to the fact that we’d be working from the dining room table for an extended period, all organisations were switching to webinars. We learnt and adapted our events over the coming months, settling on a one-hour, three-speaker format. And what great speakers we had during this period – including two government Ministers, the incoming Chief Executive of UKRI, departmental chief scientific advisors, and senior figures from industry and research.
With the cost of online events not significantly affected by numbers of attendees, we were able to advertise our events more widely, and increase the numbers of people joining us. Whilst the networking and depth of interaction available in our physical dinner discussion events could never be reproduced online, we were able to reach a wider group of people with the discussions we had – including people for whom travel to London might be expensive or time-consuming.
My personal highlight of 2020 was the first Foundation Future Leaders Conference, organised by the Foundation and its cohort of Future Leaders, and targeted at early and mid-career professionals. Spread over three days in November, more than 600 people participated, with keynote presentations including the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir Patrick Vallance, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell.
In parallel with our events, we published weekly blogs and podcasts, bringing additional depth to the topics we have been exploring. In addition, our Learned and Professional Society Officer was extremely busy all year providing governance advice to our members, including on issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Our new website, completed in April 2020, has made it much easier to include a wider range of material. And at the end of 2020, we agreed some improvements to the FST Journal, including the development of an electronic version alongside the hard copy, which we will roll out in 2021.
So, despite all the challenges of 2020, we had a busy year. And one thing that was very clear last year was the clear link between science, technology and innovation on the one hand, and policymaking on the other. And the Foundation for Science and Technology will continue to make its own small contribution to that.
The last thing we did before the Christmas break was to select the 2021 Foundation Future Leaders, and as the new year starts at the Foundation, I am looking forward to working with another fantastic group of mid-career professionals. As with our discussion events, that work will begin in 2021 online. Of course, no-one can yet predict when we will be able to go back to in-person meetings and events, but we are really looking forward to this whenever it is safe to do so. When we do, we will seek to live-stream the first part of our evening discussion meetings, to allow people to continue to join remotely.
We have our first two events of the year already planned – “Creating a ‘UK ARPA’ and making it a success” on 27 January, and “Will hydrogen technologies get us to net zero?” on 24 February. Other events are in the planning stage. I welcome any thoughts on key topics for the Foundation to discuss – do please drop me a line.
We started 2021 as we ended 2020 – still in the firm grip of Covid-19. Science and Technology will help us reach the end of 2021 in a much better place. In the meantime, very best wishes for 2021 from all of us at the Foundation for Science and Technology.
Gavin Costigan is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology. To find out more about Gavin and his work click here.