Sciences of the world unite

September 11th 2023

The RSB is increasingly working with learned societies and groups in other subjects to help effect system-wide change

The RSB and its predecessor organisations have a long history of working to understand and further the interests of biologists and biology. Increasingly, however, the issues our members face are bigger than just bioscience. From responding to Brexit to informing education reforms, the Society is finding more than ever that working together with its ‘sister societies’ in other STEM subjects and beyond is the best way to maximise impact. 

Education is one area where it makes sense to work with societies in other subjects, as well as with non-specific education groups such as regulatory and awarding bodies. Issues like exam reform, teacher retention and tuition fees don’t just impact biology students, and won’t be solved by an RSB campaign alone.

Our collaborations with other societies can take the form of formal partnerships – for example, the Science Education Policy Alliance, a long-standing group made up of the RSB, the Association for Science Education, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, which looks at primary and secondary science education across the nations of the UK. Some collaborations are even broader, working with groups representing mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, higher education institutions or teacher training providers, and charities.

However, pan-science working can also be informal partnerships that spring up at certain times – for example in response to consultations or policy announcements.

Most of the time “it’s about having a stronger, collective voice across the sciences,” says Lauren McLeod MRSB, the RSB’s head of education policy. “It’s useful to have a unified voice when you’re talking to government and policymakers. Even if we’re responding to things individually, we can line up on the language we use or the numbers we present.”

Working together

Policymakers and parliamentarians are busy people and they often don’t have time to properly meet or consult with representatives from each of the sciences. “Select committees might only speak with one person from the sciences – and you may have a chair who is particularly interested in physics, for example,” says McLeod. “If we can get some biology messaging in there, through whoever is chosen, it means we can work together instead of competing for time.” Many research funding and workforce issues cut across sectors and government departments.

Dr Laura Marshall, the RSB’s head of science policy, says that worrying pan-science issues, such as the potential loss of access to Horizon Europe, have also led to closer ties between learned societies in recent years. “We’ve started to do a lot more joint statements and joint letters to government to try to get those messages that we all agree on across loud and clear.”

Marshall says there is evidence that the sciences are also becoming more interdisciplinary, which means there is a greater need to understand and collaborate with the other specialties. “One of the key reasons for collaborating is the overlap in our community with other disciplines, which is happening in lots of interesting ways that I wish people discussed more,” she says.

It’s not just in policy where it pays to collaborate with other subjects: many aspects of the RSB’s work, from degree accreditation to outreach programmes, benefit from sharing best practice about what has worked and what hasn’t. This can be especially important when thinking about how to approach sensitive matters like inclusion and diversity.

“We can learn from others’ expertise and experience on certain initiatives when we are thinking of doing something similar,” says McLeod.

Marshall describes how collaborative workshops with other societies can provide “a safe space where we can sense check what we’re doing” before it is implemented. 

Making connections

With many global challenges converging into interconnected crises, the number of work streams where biologists will need to collaborate with others to effect change is only going to increase – whether it be on pandemic preparedness, food security or the transition to net zero.

While the majority of the Society’s work remains focused on promoting and supporting bioscience, it will continue to expand its network to ensure it is well connected to other science communities and life-science adjacent sectors. The RSB’s three-year plan also expresses the ambition to expand the Society’s network and influence internationally.

“We quite often bring the message to governments that they need to get out of their silos, says Marshall. “But, actually, the sciences and a lot of other sectors in the UK aren’t necessarily doing that either. These issues need a society-wide, systematic response and we should be cooperating more to make the biggest impact.”

By the Biologist editorial team, with input from the RSB's science and education policy teams.