Pfizer…and innovation emergencies

The news that Pfizer is to close its R&D facility in Sandwich in Kent has shaken us from our sleepy winter hollows.

I’ve been watching the reactions and comments come over the wires as I am sure you have.  This is clearly a company going through considerable transition as it tries to change with the times – see the Reuters round-up of their results today for a good insight.  And essentially its the sort of hard-headed business decision that US companies seem prone to take about their global operations when restructuring.

So, a comment on Pfizer’s view of the UK as a place to do science?  No.  As a place to do business?  Possibly. 

But perhaps we should treat it as though it were the former.  For, ultimately, the impact is the same.  The loss of a world-class R&D facility in the UK.  As others have said today, it shows we need to up our game in how the Government and those across research work with industry.

Meanwhile…and no link between the stories is intended…I’ve been absorbing today’s report by the European Commission (see also BBC News)  ‘ Innovation Union Scoreboard’  It looks at the research and innovation performance of the 27 member states of the European Union.  The basic story is that the UK is rated an ‘Innovation Follower’ (just outside the ‘Innovation Leader’ category) and is playing catch-up with those ahead of it at a slower rate than its peers in the ‘Follower’ group. 

If you look at the country profile for the UK on page 50 it says some complimentary things about the UK having an ‘open, attractive, research systems’ and the stats show we are above average in the number of non-EU doctorate students (relevant to the immigration debate surely) and public R&D expenditure.  On most of the remaining indicators the story is not so good.

The European Commission, whose way with words is to be eternally admired, says the report is evidence of an ‘Innovation Emergency.’  I am not sure what to do in an ‘Innovation Emergency’ are you?  Other than look for my patent box of course.

Guest Blog: Dame Bridget Ogilvie on the spending review

A change is as good as a rest they say.  So I am delighted that our former Chair (as well as former Director of the Wellcome Trust), Dame Bridget Ogilvie, took up my invitation to give us her perspective on the spending review and its implications.  Its closing sentiments about the development of young scientists will strike  a chord with many I feel…..

Dame Bridget Ogilvie

At last we know the worst now that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken. It’s great news that he thinks that investment in scientific research is necessary for the future growth of the economy. So the good news is that the science budget will remain at its current level of £4.6b per annum over the next 4 years, although the research councils and universities will be required to deliver efficiencies worth £162 million a year by 2014-15. 

In addition, the Government has confirmed that they will give £220m in capital funding from the Department of Health budget to UKCMRI, the consortium which includes the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and UCL.  Also, the Government will maintain its commitment to fund developments at the MRC’s LMB, Pirbright and Diamond facilities.In the nation’s present financial predicament, all this is wonderful news and far better than most of us had anticipated.

But….as the cost of scientific research always outruns the general level of inflation, over this time period the value of these funds for science will fall.  We must also remember the wider context of overall funding for universities falling from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion.  Although this settlement excludes research funding, its ultimate impact remains to be seen.  However, I am sadly sure this will affect the research productivity of universities.

We know too that many research funding charities have already seen a reduction in their ability to fund.  When money for research was reduced in the 1980’s and 90’s, the Wellcome Trust’s funds were increasing exponentially which ensured that the UK remained a real force for medical research internationally.   What Wednesday’s announcement means for charities and other funders we don’t know yet, but many anticipate that it will increase the number of applications for a grant that they receive. So even with this relatively good news, the competition for funds, already severe, will get worse.

What to do?

We know that failure to support the young when times are hard has bad long term consequences. We are still feeling the effect of poor levels of research funding in the 1990’s because the age cohort beneath the present leaders is below strength which is a real worry. We also know there is an increasing tendency to give very large grants to existing leaders with consequent reduction in funds for the less established, and nowadays scientists often don’t get their independence before they are 40+.  My generation became independent 10 or more years earlier.Many excellent people leave a research career when they feel they are unlikely to become independent until after the age of 40. 

Funders rarely pay attention to the way scientific leaders lead and manage their group. There is evidence that once groups exceed 10-12 in number, productivity drops.  Therefore, leaders and funders need to address this issue not only by making sure that developing scientists get a fair share of available resources.  But also that they are properly managed and not unfairly used by their seniors to the advantage of the leaders but the disadvantage of the whole scientific community.

CSR and painting by numbers

We are packing up.  No, no, no, not in that sense.  It is just that we are moving office in a few weeks. 

I am ashamed to say that I am the last of our team to begin the task of separating the recently aquired detritus from the must-keep documents that tell something of our history.  But I am already unearthing a few gems.

Yesterday evening I stumbled across the annual ‘handbooks’ that we published in the eighties and nineties.  These guides list our then member charities along with details of the grants and types of project each of them funded (details we now publish online).  All contain a short foreword.  Curiosity made me look at those from the early eighties:

1983 – ‘…there is no doubt that, generally speaking, university research is well-served by the charities.  The funds available not only provide a significant contribution to the overall level of funding, but are very effective in the way they can provide relatively small amounts of funding when and where this is most needed.’

1984: ‘There is widespread concern that research institutions have been weakened considerably during the last few years.  The charities have responded positively to help support and suatain the biomedical research base in the UK.  It will be noted that over 30% of the member charities have disbursed monies in excess of their income during 1983.  This is an exceptional response ata a difficult time.’

1985: ‘….there can now be little doubt that the dual support system of medical research in the UK is very shaky and there would seem to be a shift in government priorities from the public to the voluntary sector in maintaining the research base in our universities and teaching hospitals…Indeed, it would seem that the only growing contribution to medical research in real terms is that provided by the voluntary sector…’

and 1986: ‘ There can be no excuse for Government to give less; rather we would hope that the evident interest and concern of the British communitywould be reflected in a more generous allocation of public funds to the MRC…’

The hardening of their tone matches the parsimonious treatment of science  during Margaret Thatcher’s first and second terms in office.  But how easily they could fit into the discourse of the last few months.

Tomorrow sees the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) announcement.  I suspect it will be a day largely about numbers big and small.  But assessing what it means in practical terms will be more difficult.  Don’t believe what the Government says about CSR being sorted, there’s a whole lot more wheeling and dealing to be done about how the Departments slice up the budgets.  Tomorrow will feel a little like being served a rather burnt creme brulee.  Every sense will tell us how unappetising it is as a dish but we won’t actually know until we have broken through the crust.  And we will need something bigger than a teaspoon to do that.

After tomorrow, and sooner rather than later, we will need to look beyond the numbers and understand the driving philosophy behind them if we are to lead science properly in the coming years.  A number of political commentators have already written that the deficit has been a gift to a Coalition Government intent on radically restructuring government and society.  I suspect that science and technology will not be left out of this and we might get some better idea of the philosphy when the Government publishes its growth paper in the next few months. 

Last night I stumbled across a paper by David Edgerton and Kirsty Hughes, and first published in 1989, entitled ‘ The poverty of science: A critical analysis of scientific and industrial policy under Mrs Thatcher.’   (1) They unpeel and help us understand that administration’s approach to science by making us see the relevance of the wider political contex, what they call a central policy agenda of ‘freeing private enterprise, of reducing intervention and of cuts in public expenditure’ – of re-shaping a slimmed down state to better serve industry.  It is reminiscent of what we are seeing today as Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in The Guardian yesterday

Their criticism of the science lobby at the time is that it failed to understand or challenge this.  They conclude with the line: ‘Flexibility, variety and competition are  needed in studies of science and technology policy, as well as in science itself.’

So, let’s crunch the numbers tomorrow but let us also be wary of painting by numbers in our challenge to government in the coming months and years.

(1) Public Administration Vol 67 Winter 419-433

Public, private and charitable research: the spillover effect

RAND Europe and the Office of Health Economics (OHE) last week published this rather fascinating occasional paper from a seminar in May.  It examines the spillovers (wider benefits) from biomedical and health research and seems highly salient given what is going on.  I thought some of the diagrams were helpful in visualising the multilying effect of investment and collaboration across the research funding community and helping us to define what the spillovers are.  As the paper concludes these must be targets for further research.

It also gives me an opportunity to flag-up that we will be publishing our ‘Ways and Means’ report looking at research charity collaborations and the wider benefits, at our AGM and Annual Conference on 24th November 2010.

If you are looking for coverage of the Browne review of university funding here’s as good a starting place as any: Daily Telegraph.

Government in danger of misunderstanding charities at their peril

Language is everything in politics. We hang of every word of our politicians for any hint of a change in tone or content that might indicate whether a batlle is lost or won. The same is true of those campaigning for change. Just read my blogs from all three party conferences.

It feels in this eleventh hour before the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) that the language is hardening on both sides, that the courting is over and that hard truths are being spoken. I was pleased, for instance, to see such a stout defence of the charity position by the Wellcome Trust (our largest member) in today’s Guardian which reflects the position we articulated in our letter to The Times some weeks ago.

I think that I speak for my member charities when I say that there is a perennial frustration over the sense that the government talks about the contribution of medical research charities as a ‘nice to have’ bonus rather than recognising the essential and integral part it plays in making science happen in the UK. It used to talk about the charity sector’s delivery of care services in the same way until it realised it couldn’t deliver a welfare state without.

Similarly, in research, the UK would be ‘poorer’ without the contribution of charities in every sense of that word.

You only have to look at the latest figures on health research spend in the US which have been put out by the influential lobby group, Research!America to see what I mean. Now, few can compete with the sheer scale of funding in the States but I decided to do some number crunching myself (always a dangerous thing I know) to compare the contribution of the charity sector in the US to that in the UK.

Research spending is spliced differently there but if you add up what seem the most comparable aspects of ‘government’ funding in terms of NIH, state government funding etc and then add up the contributions of the voluntary health associations, philanthropic associations and independent institutes you get a total spend equivalent to £42.7 billion.

Its a rought cut I know. But if you now articulate the ‘charity’ contribution in the US as a proportion of all public expenditure there you get a figure of just under 8%. Even then, I think that is slightly inflated because of the nature of some of the organisations classed as NGOs.

What’s the proportion of public expenditure contributed by charities in the UK? Approximately one third.

But as Mark Walport so rightly put it in The Guardian this morning, it is less about the money than the synergy between the charity sector here with its other partners, the fact the sector is pushing in the same direction rather than entertaining private concerns as some of the American NGOs are wont to do.

If our government really does believe charities are a potential substitute for their forthcoming plans then they have seriously misunderstood the nature of the sector in the UK. Indeed, it is the sort of thinking upon which best laid plans will quickly unravel. I am even tempted to say something about ‘gift horses’ but is the end of a long week and that may be a little over the top.

What do you think?

Science at the Conservative Party conference – curtain down calls an end to well-rehearsed choreography in the nick of time

After three weeks on the road it is only to be expected that the fringe meetings take on the choreography of a well-rehearsed show. It certainly felt that way with tonight’s  Royal Society fringe. The performances were faultless but there was never any real hope of artistic interpretation.

The science minister, David Willetts, sang well from his hymn sheet but did not, dare not, go beyond the notes or melody we have heard before. It must be a strange existence being a minister ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR); so much to possibly say, so much that can not be said.

At times tonight’s fringe almost felt like the summing up by respective lawyers in a legal case with the final decision now left to Judge Osborne and his cabinet. All the talk around about the conference has been how David Willetts and Vince Cable are persuaded by the arguments but that those to be persuaded are burning the midnight oil in HM Treasury. So I think he and others are probably finding it helpful that the lobby remains active against ‘cavalier’ cuts.

He said he had found the discussion illuminating and expressed the hope that, whatever the outcome in two weeks time, ‘people will feel we have reached a judgement that is fair’ and that they would work with the coalition government to ensure science in the UK remained ‘vigorous, health and strong’.

I was interested in Willetts’ recollection of his early career days at HM Treasury and the nightmare scenario that then existed of the government having to take its orders from the IMF. It perhaps explains why his peers in the coalition government seem so adamant about going so hard at cutting the budget deficit and quickly.

If I am honest, it was one of the new players tonight who interested me most. Richard Lambert from the CBI who seemed more willing to play the scenario game than anyone else. He concluded his opening remarks by saying: ‘A squeeze is absorbable but it has to go with a strong  statement of clear intent.’ ‘Spending should be focused on human capital,’ he said.   It was also a sobreing moment when he astutely pointed out that in terms of cutting public expenditure at BIS, the department only has three pots to play with – Higher Education, Training and Science, ‘ the rest are just crumbs.

You can always trust a journalist to cut to the chase. The last question of the evening went to a journalist from the Sunday Times who asked what a 15% cut would mean for science.

But with catering staff waiting to set up for the next show, the curtain went down on the this final performance before David Willetts was given the chance to answer. Just in the nick of time.

Science at the Conservative Party Conference – notes from a large fringe

Stumbling half-asleep across my hotel room this morning I overheard a spokesman from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on the TV saying that every £1 invested in arts in the city generated a further £29 in economic activity. Or something along those lines.

As Orwellian visions filled my mind of a day to come where every minute of our lives is assessed in terms of productivity I quickened my pace. Like most men I really must learn to multi-task better.

The ‘Research to the Rescue’ fringe hosted by BHF, Diabetes UK and the Stroke Association yesterday lunchtime was a storming success. A good 70 or so delegates I think. Earl Howe was in attendance again.

Quote of the day…and I promise I am not biased towards them…was from Betty McBride at BHF who explained why international leadership in science was important said: ‘You don’t get asked to the party unless you are one of the frontrunners.’ But Joe Korner from the Stroke Association came close with: ‘We need to live in an environment of good science that is inspired by government.’

Earl Howe acknowledged the difficulties in enthusing NHS Trusts in medical research and said that NIHR was working on a standards framework which would be a facilitator to enabling Trusts to cut through procedures and make things happen more quickly: ‘I am determined that we will do a lot better in this area.’

Responding to Osborne’s statement about medical research earlier in the day he would not be drawn into a debate about science budgets but said: ‘We [ministers] would be loath to see any dimution of the health research budget in the Department of Health.’ He also said it would be ‘fixed and ring-fenced’.

I was pleased there was a question from the floor about researchers having access to data in an electronic format and the Conservatives have sounded much more positive about this ever since…they came into government.

Earl Howe said that the computerisation of patient records was very important and that the lack of this facility was a real problem.  He said that information was central to achieving the coalition government’s plans with regard to the Outcomes Framework etc. He reminded everyone that the Department of Health’s IT strategy consultation document would be out very shortly and that it would ask the community some deep questions to help with this major stream of work.

But Dr Iain Frame from Diabetes UK made the salient point that the difficulties have been overcome in Scotland (all patient information for those suffering from diabetes is made available electronically there) and that the key reason this had happened was ‘political will’.

Charities will be heartened by the fact that Earl Howe acknowledged the importance of the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) and was convinced that his counterpart, David Willetts, was ‘very well seized’ with it.

I am off to seize the day.

Science at the Conservative Party Conference – it ain't over until it's over

‘So we will give priority to spending that supports growth in our economy. That means investment in the transport schemes, the medical research and the communications networks that deliver the greatest economic benefit.’ George Osborne, 4 October 2010

Welcome, good, important? Yes.

Victory, game over? Of course not.

A noticeable frisson went through the room when we heard through iPhones, Blackberries, other assorted gadgetry and plain old word-of-mouth that Osborne had made the above statement in his conference speech today.

Chancellors of the Exchequer, as all ministers, make conference speeches that are highly crafted over many weeks with each statement and word poured over.  There is rarely anything that is off-the-cuff. Everything is deliberate. So Osborne will have chosen to make a clear reference to medical research perhaps in response to the lobby, perhaps because of its popular appeal.

So, yes, it is an important statement of intent and it gives reason to be optimistic. But it is not reason enough to stop campaigning hard for the best possible settlement for science. Why?

To begin with there is a degree to which Osborne is merely confirming what has been highly conjectured already. We already know that the health budget including the health research budget held by NIHR is being afforded a level of protection under the CSR as the government has stated many times.

If he is signalling that this protection now includes what the MRC also spends then that would be significant.  But we don’t know and won’t know of course until the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement is announced on 20th October 2010. One of the problems with ministerial speeches to conference – as opposed to in their normal day-to-day duties as a minister – is that there are plenty of advisers to explain the political interpretation that is desired but no officials involved to help explain what they mean in practice.

He did, it is true, talk up innovation using Birmingham as an example of a city of invention:

‘Here in this city of innovation let us find the inspiration to turn today’s Britain into an ideas factory for the world. Innovative, ingenious and open for business. For the hard economic choices we make are but a means to an end. And that end is prosperity for all.’

But this is science speak in the loosest terms and he could have chosen to say so much more if he had wanted.

I continue to feel that we are hearing a clearer, more certain articulation of aspirations on medical and health research in Osborne’s speech today and in other coalition government statements (see my blog yesterday about Earl Howe speaking at Sunday night’s fringe) than we are on the broader science budget.

So that is why when someone asked me after Osborne’s speech what we do now, I said it is very simple: ‘We continue to press hard.’ And that means persuading government to to invest strongly in the science base, the platform from which successes in medical and health research ultimately stem. Pledges on medical and health research will not amount to as much as the government would like to believe without this commitment to what underpins it as well.

The ‘Science is Vital’ campaign petition is creeping up to 13000 so please keep signing.  Plus there’s a rather lovely guest blog by Jenny Rohn (whose idea it initially was) on Martin Robbins Guardian blog.  It is well worth a read.

Congratulations of course to IVF pioneer Bob Edwards for being awarded the Nobel Prize today some 30+ years after the first IVF baby was born. I wonder if it counts as evidence of impact by the government’s definition?

Report on ‘Research to the rescue’ fringe tomorrow morning!

Science at the Conservative Party Conference – avoiding the herd mentality

I read in the Birmingham local press that about 14,000 people are expected at the Conservative Party Conference.  It certainly seems busier than the preceding two, even on a Sunday evening. 

Each conference has its own feel but common to them all is the herd of grey-suited buffalo (including myself I suppose) that migrates from one to the other.  Others have commented on the fact that there seems to be a distinct lack of diversity at all the conferences – in terms of people and topics of debate – which is perhaps a worrying sign of where politics has got too.  The result is a rather banal preoccupation with sibling rivalries and holes in socks rather than the real issues. 

However, this evening’s Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and ABHI fringe was perhaps the most successful of all the three I have chaired over the last few weeks.  Absorbing and really quite distressing stories from family carers Amy (whose daughter Eva had a stem cell transplant for leukaemia) and Alice (who cared for both her husband and mother-in-law during the marathon that is dementia) started off the meeting.

It was excellent to have Earl Howe on the stand too.  Earl Howe is the Minister responsible for medical and health research in the Department of Health.  He seemed in receptive mood and was keen to talk to delegates afterwards (rather than rush off which is what so many politicians seem or have to do these days).

Issues covered included the national dementia strategy.  Earl Howe said the Coalition Government was strongly committed to the policy – indeed he reminded us that it was an explicit part of the Coalition Government joint statement – but that it would be updated with the aim of going further, faster.  Rebecca Wood from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust urged him to consider the delivery aspects of this plan given the wider changes afoot in the NHS.

Earl Howe seemed rightly concerned about the poor funding in other areas such as mental health and conditions where thre is low morbidity but where the impact on quality of life is significant such as hearing impairment.  He asked whether some of this was due to the poor quality of research proposals being put forward and said he was interested in understanding better the underlying causes.  He also asked for more information about the government-funded cord blood banks held in the USA and Spain – the lack of an equivalent approach in the UK means umbilical cords have to be imported from abroad for potential recipients.

I was struck by the comment Alice made in her talk about having to search for information about clinical trials herself rather than hearing about them from her GP or clinicians.  GPs in the audience bristled and rightly voiced the difficulties they are under but I got a sense from Earl Howe that they are on the case of ensuring doctors are incentivised to be research active. This has to be right.

There was much talk of regulation and regulatory hurdles to research.  Earl Howe said ‘we want to remove the barriers to research’ and talked about the importance of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ review of regulation: ‘When we get it we will look very carefully at the legislation and bring forward plans for radical simplification.’ 

He also referred to the North West Exemplar which is a programme aimed at speeding-up the start-up times of clinical trials, saying that the Department would be evaluating the results from this in due course.  I think Ministers have really got their teeth into this agenda but then it is natural territory for Conservatives.

I thought there was quite a strong distinction Earl Howe made between the UK’s strong performance in basic science compared to that in clinical and translational research – he said our record in the latter was poorer and that much ‘work needs to be done.’  Again, referencing regulation, he described a clinical trial which was supposed to be run in England and the Netherlands but where the Dutch element was ready to report its results before the UK part had even started.

He was careful not to be drawn into the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) other than to rehearse the statements about the protection of the health budget.  He said the community was ‘rightly anxious’ about the wider science budget held by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

I hope that our meeting avoided the herd mentality, it certainly felt like a good discussion from the top table.

Science at the Conservative Party Conference

Two down, one to go.  Here’s science related ‘matter’ at the Conservative Party Conference which starts in Birmingham tomorrow.

Birmingham University was of course the venue for the Science Minister, David Willett’s, first speech after taking office.  I am looking forward to being one of the hosts when he joins us for a roundtable breakfast on Wednesday.  I have been speculating whether he eats ‘clusters’ for breakfast or plain old corn flakes person.

In terms of the formal conference agenda items of interest include debates on ‘Big Society and People Power’ (cue a reminder to sign the Science is Vital peititon which has over 10,000 signatures now including support from the Wellcome Trust) on Sunday afternoon, ‘The Economy’ on Monday morning before lunch, debates on publci services and welfare onTuesday and the Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, speaks on Wednesday afternoon.  You can see the agenda here.

My pick on the fringe….I shall be chairing the ‘Innovation as a cure’ meeting organised by Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and ABHI on Sunday evening at 5.45 or there is the Breakthrough Breast Cancer tea party starting at 5.30pm if you prefer, and another of our charities, Ovarian Cancer Action is looking at women’s health at 9.30.  The latter features Sarah Wollaston MP who is on the Health Select Committee and a GP.

You can kick off your Monday at 8am with Birmingham Science City which has a fringe entitled ‘Innovation and the Green Revolution.’  A bit later at 12.30pm why not decompress after George Osborne MP’s speech to conference by going to the British Chambers of Commerce debate.  I only mention it because the Financial Secretary, Stephen Timms MP, and Shadow Business Minister, Will-Butler-Adams MP, will be speaking.  Surely after hearing from this trio we might be able piece together a narrative for economic growth?

But I am sure most of you would prefer to hear David Willetts speak at the NESTA fringe which is taking place at the same time (12.30pm) on the subject of ‘Made in Britain: Building a 21st century economy.’  Either that or hearing Earl Howe, the Department of Health Minister responsible for medical and health research, speak at the ‘Research to the rescue’ fringe at 12.45pm hosted by BHF, Diabetes UK and the Stroke Association.

The Guardian’s engaging Michael White chairs the Health Hotel debate on Monday evening (19.30) and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley MP is speaking at the Health Hotel reception afterwards (which is invitation only sadly, what happened to the days when you could walk in to these things).

The 1994 Group and others hold a lunchtime debate on the future of higher education at 12.30pm on Tuesday and so are Reform with Universities UK at 1.00pm with David Willetts MP invited.  This one is called ‘Building the Future: Higher education and economic growth.’  [nb: one of the perils of conferences is the fact that many similarly-themed fringe meetings clash but I find you can run from one to the other if you are quick on your feet).

Also of interest on Tuesday lunchtime is the Asthma UK, Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd and Smith Institute fringe: ‘Can Health Cuts Be Good For You?’ Andrew Lansley is down to speak at this one which starts at 1.00pm. 

The Royal Society takes its ‘Scientific Century’ debate to conference on Tuesday evening at 7.30pm with David Willetts MP, Paul Wellings (Chair of the 1994 Group) and Brian Cox.  The Chemical Industries Association pop up this week with their own event at 7.45pm looking at ‘Science Education: The next deficit’ which looks more like a reception but I might be wrong.

And that’s it….a much busier conference than the other two as you might expect.  I look forward to seeing you there.

Science's reputation will be easily cracked, and will never mend well

Forgive the headline which is a version of Benjamin Franklin’s: ‘Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.’ 

If you haven’t seen today’s Guardian splash on science cuts then you should really take a look.  There is a wealth of detail but the human stories are the most absorbing aspect of the piece as always.  At least one of the scientists interviewed (David Proctor), is conducting work funded by medical research charities. 

It is a tragedy to see confidence in the future of UK science slipping away among our scientists in this way.  It will certainly have an impact of medical research charities and it will undoubtedly mean that it will be harder to make an impact with the donations they receive.  

What did Benjamin Franklin also say: ‘It takes many good deeds to build a reputation, and only one bad to lose it.’

…Next week I’ll be blogging from the Conservative Party Conference as usual and we will be publishing our response to the NHS White Paper plus bringing together the latest reports and evidence on public and patient involvement in research.

How will cutting science funding affect your university?

Nature blog contains an interesting item today looking at the impact of science funding cuts on different universities assuming that funds are directed away from 2* as opposed to 3* or 4* research – the excellence rating given under the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

But William Cullerne Brown goes into much more detail, looking at different cut scenarios and their impact.  Fascinating but unpal;atable reading.

The knock-on effects will be significant for charities.  80% of all charity funding for research (£1.1 billion in 2009-2010) goes to universities.  And about 80% of this goes to universities who are members of the Russell Group.  But, depending on the scenario, significant amounts of charity research will be vulnerable. 

The pictures drawn here are helpful at least in, as Nature says, visualising what could happen to different institutions and making global figures begin to make sense in terms of the impact on the ground.  Information that should be passed on to every MP with such an institution in their constituency.  And you can do that through the Science is Vital campaign site.

Science at the Labour Party Conference – Ed captures hearts but not science

In my potter around the conference exhibition this afternoon, I stumbled upon a stand for the ‘People’s Museum’ here in Manchester which charts the struggles of the working class and houses the Labour Party’s official archives.

I wish I had time to pop along if only to check whether my knowledge of political history is as good as I would like to think.

I won’t be the first to make the comparisons between the scenario inherited by Ed Milliband and that by Harold Wilson in 1963 – a demoralised party emerging from election defeat, the country faced by a massive deficit etc etc.

Almost to the day 27 years ago, Harold Wilson made his infamous ‘white heat of technology’ speech to the Labour Party conference in Scarborough. ‘The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry’ is what he actually said.

Brian Walden recounts in a BBC Online piece that later that day – 1 Oct 1963 – a trade union leader remarked that Harold Wilson had ‘captured science’. A strong statement indeed.

Delegates watching Ed Milliband on one of the exhibition tv screens

Ed Milliband’s speech today will no doubt be marked down as the ‘new generation’ speech and I understand his need to speak to his party above all at this time.  But given the impassioned speeches I have heard from shadow ministers this week about the need for a good story on growth and the importance of science in that story I was disappointed that we did not even get a hint of either in the Ed’s opening gambit.

I looked back at the programme for the Scarborough Conference and noticed that Dick Crossman was also speaking on the same day as Wilson about the organisation of university research.  Strange how these issues are cyclical, a shame that a sense of history is lost to us when facing the current.

I think Will Hutton said last night: ‘It is only science that can save us.’

Science at Labour Party Conference – Vital Signs

First, a general observation.  Less than one day here and I have met four ‘Eds’ already – more than in the previous ten years travelling the breadth of the UK. Strange that.  But perhaps when you are faced by David Willetts you need as many ‘Eds’ as you can get.

I came expecting a muted, self-sorrowful Labour Party conference.  But my assumptions have been confounded.  This is a political party that, run out of town six months ago like the shamed sheriff who lost the biggest gunfight of them all, is now appearing on the horizon with renewed appetite for the affray.

Whether you agree with that analogy or not, the Labour Party is showing that its vital signs remain strong.

It was good to see 50+ delegates turn-up to the lunchtime fringe meeting ‘Innovation as cure’ organised by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and the Association of British Healthcare Industries (ABHI) and chaired by yours truly.

Robert France who was in Liverpool with me, spoke movingly again of the stem cell transplant received by his son, Jackson.  Dionne Priddy described the hopelessness her family felt after her husband, Mark, was diagnosed with pre-senile dementia and entered a rapid decline.  He died earlier this year and Dionne still ran the marathon just days later to raise £14,000 for dementia research.

Questions from the audience of patients, carers, scientists and politicians ranged far and wide – from informed consent to the bonfire of the quangos.  The opposition health spokesperson, Baroness Thornton, said that she and the health team were committed to campaigning for, and championing, health research.  She explained how there would be a review of health policies over the next 12 months in what was intended to be an inconclusive process drawing in external views, with workstreams looking into particular issues.  She expressed concerns over the possible break-up of the HFEA and said that their message on the health white paper was that it is the ‘wrong white paper and the wrong bill at the wrong time.’

The Royal Society meeting this evening (co-hosted by the 1994 Group) was more sparky than that at the Lib Dems. The Shadow Higher Education Minister, David Lammy MP, spoke powerfully about his determination to fight science cuts, expressed concern over the possible disappearance of the ring-fencing of the science budget (I heard it was 50:50 whether it would stay or not, which would be a break with 30 years of history), and argued that the result of the general election was the worst possible outcome for science. With an obvious nod to Tony Benn in the audience he said that Labour’s passion for science ran deep and over many generations.

David Lammy MP

Will Hutton (of the Work Foundation), who often succeeds in turning on its head any preconceived notion you might have held on an issue, argued that he would cut all budgets before laying hands on the science budget since it was the source of growth and wealth creation from which everything else ultimately stems.

He said that those countries who invested most in science and technology would be those than benefited most from leaps in knowledge and innovation in the future.  He also spoke passionately about the science ecosystem and the need to create better systems and institutions – innovation centres – to enable knowledge transfer.

In response to a question from the floor about what the science community could do in the face of the forthcoming challenges, all the panel agreed that the most important thing was to build the largest collaboration of supporters possible.

And given that, can I point you and encourage you to sign the Science is Vital petition (which I signed today).  You’ll also find details of the planned rally and lobby of parliament on 9th and 12th October.

Brain drain in science story

You may have heard the news headlines this morning about the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee letter to the Science Minister, David Willetts, expressing fears about a brain drain of scientists from the UK to other countries.  

Reasons include people’s growing concern over possible cuts in science funding and what it could mean for their work, but also the attractive packages now being put on the table by other countries such as Australia.  You can find the full text of the letter on BBC New Online here.

It makes for sobering reason not least because of the evidence put forward by the six universities contacted by the Committee.  Whatever the Government might say about wanting to be an international centre for science, my fear is that a combination of the CSR and unhelpful policies such as the cap on non-EU migrants is creating a perception that reality does not match Ministerial statements.