Avoiding Laurel and Hardy when it comes to science can be difficult for the public

An early start today finds me waiting for a flight to Belfast where I am speaking at the 9th Scientific Conference of the Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS) charity.

Just time enough to pen a quick blog then. Lucky me. Poor you.

Last night I was looking at my papers for a meeting about stratified medicine being hosted by the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) this Friday. It follows their report ‘Realising the potential of stratified medicine’ published a few months ago.

For some reason the image of Laurel and Hardy came to mind. Or rather those scenes where one of them is carrying a ladder on their shoulder. And the other weaves and ducks to avoid the ladder as it is swung about wildly. Until they get knocked out of course.

Why should the Academy conjure such images in my mind?

Well, it’s not the Academy as such I hasten to say. Rather it is that, as a member of the public, when it comes to cutting edge science or, in this case, health research it can feel like we are that person who is ducking and diving. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the intentions of many promoting the science is good. It’s just it’s all a bit clumsy. Quite often as a lay person it does indeed feel like being in a silent movie. But I am not quite hanging of a clock in Brooklyn yet.

I heard the outgoing Chair of the HFEA, Lisa Jardine, say on the Today programme a few months ago that science communication needs to – and I paraphrase – enter the era of the ‘talkies’ if we are going to future proof science with the sort of public confidence that is able to help us weather bad times and good. She was implying that we need to have conversations well before conversations currently take place. If that makes sense. Who hosts that is a key question for me.

[i should add that Sciencewise is currently funding a public dialogue exercise in stratified medicine]

Also last night I filled out the British Science Association (BSA) survey (now closed – why only open for 2 weeks I ask!?). This is part of their strategic review. They wanted to know what I thought about them and the work they do around what is horribly called ‘Science and Society.’

BSA is like the BOAC of science communications. It flies some highly airworthy Comets and the occasional Concorde. But it lacks a fleet of Boeings or Airbuses to do anything of scale. Hopefully that might be about to change.

Anyway, I don’t know whether BSA is the right host for Lisa Jardine’s conversation. However, I do feel instinctively drawn towards the idea of a consumer body in science or even more specifically health research. A body that would seek out the best deal for you and I, the consumer, of science as it reaches the market place. Why not?

It would certainly correct the market failure of research funders and others in promoting the interests of consumers as thrown into sharp relief by campaigns such as AllTrials. Those you would expect to do this – such as our charities – are too compromised by their own funding interests (as the public often point out in surveys). Others are poorly equipped to provide the sort of independent critical appraisal that would have credence with the public. A ‘Which?’ of science.

In the meantime, you take care now. Don’t walk under any ladders.

Revised Science and Society Vision: A step forward?

I am in Denmark on a study visit looking at how they do innovation. More on that in a few days time I hope.

In the meantime colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) sent me through the link to their revised vision, aims etc which was published on their website last week.

Here is the link: http://scienceandsociety.bis.gov.uk/blog/2012/12/06/bis-vision-and-objectives/

You’ll remember I let off steam about their original vision a few months ago.

It feels like a step forward. I am particularly pleased about the inclusion of public involvement in research governance as one of the aims, assuming they mean it in the sense of an active partnership between researchers and the public. I think they are continuing to want comments so please do send them in if you have time. It would be great to see a partnership developed to support public involvement in other scientific disciplines not just medical research.

I noticed that they had recently started a citizens council as well – not very large in number i think but it’s a beginning.

Writing competition open for entries – win an iPad and article in eLife #A2UComp

And if you already have one you can always re-gift it (to me)!  This is a new science writing competition for researchers and I shall be one of the judges I am delighted to say.
The ‘Access to Understanding’ writing competition for bioscience researchers has been launched by Europe PubMed Central and The British Library in recognition of the importance of enabling access to, and understanding of, scientific research.  The closing date is 11th January 2013 and further details including the entry criteria can be found by following the link above or clicking on the picture below.
Access to Understanding
The awards ceremony for Access to Understanding will be one of a series of events during The British Library’s ‘Inspiring Science‘ season held in March to coincide with Brain Awareness Week and National Science & Engineering Week celebrations.  If you check out the website over the coming weeks you will find details of other science-related events that may be of interest.
This also gives me an excuse to add some colour to the blog for a change other than my curious writing style of course.

Y’All: I still don’t really know what the BIS Science and Society strategy is about, do you?

I’ve been meaning to post this ever since it came across my Twitter feed some weeks ago.

If you go on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Science and Society Strategy pages you’ll see that they have published updated action plans for each of the ‘Expert Groups’ set up in 2010.  These groups were tasked to identify and take forward work in specific areas: the media, careers etc.  Progress varies widely and in some cases – such as the group focusing on ‘Trust’ – things are in a bit of limbo (you’ll just have to trust me on that one!).  Anyway, here’s the link to the rather euphemistically called ‘Science for All’ group as it seems the most relevant to (y’all you) people who might read my blog.

Clearly there’s some good work embedded in all this detail and BIS is asking for comment and feedback on what has been achieved.  But it’s not entirely clear to me what the impact has been.  And that is sort of curious given the onus on everyone else to demonstrate the outcomes of their work.

Fundamentally, I have always thought that the decision to go down this route of ‘Expert Groups’ had a number of flaws – beginning with the lack of inclusiveness.  Most of all that it suffered from not having a clearly articulated over-arching strategy and philosophy which conveyed how it all hangs together.  So it tends to come across as being a disjointed programme even if it is not behind the scences.  Plus you can’t help but think the onus has been on working vertically downwards through existing communities of practice rather than on developing networks and partnerships that break down boundaries.  As I say, that’s how it seems to me.  Which is a shame because I have had a little indirect contact with the team there which suggests this is an area of interest.

I say this with some hesitation because it will likely betray my complete ignorance of the subject.  But, for all the many faults of the EU and what it does around science and innovation, I rather warm to its Science and Society ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ framework which has just been published in leaflet format.  At least it conveys a sense of vision and ambition and focuses on areas that really do seem to be about bringing society and science together.

Perhaps the advent of a new Chief Scientific Officer in 2013 will see the whole programme given a new lease of life.

Not a word on science and society from Willetts… rest my case

A major speech by Science Minister, David Willetts, about science and not a word about ‘Science and Society’ or the importance of the public.

I am pleased that the Minister recognises the importance of ensuring science articles are in the public domain and not behind a pay wall but it’s curious there seems no public involvement in the inquiry being led by Dame Janet Finch.

Nudge nudge, wink wink

‘Medics’ will be gathering in Scotland this week for a 5-day meeting at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh to discuss the medical breakthroughs that have done most to shape and indeed saved lives over the past fifty years. 

Scotland on Sunday have a report today previewing the meeting.  The article includes a list of the top 20 advances as voted by over 600 ‘docs.’  Antibiotics came top and Scotland has a link to 8 of the top 20; interesting also to see things appear in the list such as randmized clinical trials.

But Office for National Statistics data published earlier in the weekend shows that Scotland still has mountains to climb in combatting the biggest killers in society – cancer, heart disease and stroke. (Note the very important health warning on the stats though given by the British Health Foundation).

The challenge is that it will require not just new medical breakthroughs such as stem cell treatments or stratified medicine but also changes in people’s behaviour as well if we are to truly win the battle against them,  And that is what will probably mark the next 50 years out from the previous 50 in many respects.

So, I have been following with interest the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee Inquiry into behaviour change that is underway. The committe have already taken evidence from members of No 10’s so-called ‘nudge unit’ and Government departments and I think witnesses from MRC and other science organisations are up before the committee on 30th November.

This committee may be going quietlyand efficently about its business outside of the glare of media attention but sometimes a ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ can speak volumes.

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 science funding: that morning after feeling

So understandably the debate goes on whether we should be drinking champagne or lucozade this morning after yesterday’s announcement.  But I rather liked this sobre assessment by Jenny Rohn, originator of the Science is Vital campaign which has appeared in The Guardian.

The New Scientist has also published a detailed analysis penned by Imran Khan from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).

But Jenny Rohn’s piece in particular struck a chord with me. It reminded me of something someone once taught me as a young campaigner: that you should never underestimate the importance of the moment when those you are trying to influence begin to share the same language as you.

In the meantime I’m going to have a nice cup of tea as I recover from some sort of CSR inspired bug.

CSR – AMRC reaction on science settlement


The full spending review document can be seen here. Note the very explicit reference and commitment to the Medical Research Council (MRC) including expenditure growth in real terms (p52). We have just had a message through from NIHR which repeats the spending review document messages and is heavy on language about pulling through the benefits of science for patients and the economy. This result seems clearer for medical and health research than it does other areas of science.

Now seems a good idea to also unveil our excellent policy blog which gives you the low-down on the statements and people’s reactions.

Our immediate reaction to today’s spending review announcement on science:

‘Is this a slam-dunk for science? No, of course not. Is this a good result in the circumstances? Yes, probably. Today’s spending review announcement at least ensures continuity as well as stability in science funding for the foreseeable future. But I remain concerned about the added demands it will place on charity funding of research.  As ever, the fine print will need careful reading.

What may turn out to be more important in the long-term is the fact that HM Treasury have been won over by the arguments about how science drives the nation’s wealth, health and wellbeing.  We need to push on from here and work together to strengthen UK medical and health research so that patients can benefit from new thinking and treatments.’

Simon Denegri

Chief Executive

Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC)

We’ll be doing more analysis later in the day.

CSR press reports: science spending to be 'frozen'

Well, we won’t have too long to wait to know whether this is true but the Guardian is reporting this evening that science spending is to be frozen in tomorrow’s CSR for a review period, representing a 10% reduction in real terms over that time as inflation reduces the spending power of departments.

…and further perspective from the Financial Times running along the same lines as well as more on BBC News including some more specific remarks about the Medical Research Council. Plus The Times (paywall).  Interesting narrative in the latter piece from Treasury sources which suggest the growth arguments of the science lobby have been effective.

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

Briefings on the impact on science of a cap non-EU migrants, data protection etc

A quick pass-by to alert you to the fact that we have a new briefing available on the impact on science of the proposed cap on non-EU migrants…and that we have published our response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on the current legislative framework for data protection.

On the former I believe that the House of Lords are due to debate the issue this Thursday 21st October.