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Cancer Research UK does not have all the answers..and that’s an invitation to the rest of us

I see that Cancer Research UK last week put out a press statement about the need for the UK to have strategic vision for medical research. You can find further details on their blog and they also issued a document entitled ‘Building the Right Environment for Medical Research.’

Thoughtfully the announcement and document have been sensibly timed so that you and I can carry it under our arms during the party conference season now upon us. All with the aim of stimulating debate in the run up to the Government consulting on and producing a research and innovation strategy. And how overdue is that particular gem I ask you?

‘Building the Right Environment’ is a curious document. It might seem strange but the main thought I had after reading it is that it would be hard to disagree with any of it. Is that because it it’s smack on the mark in terms of its prescription, or not challenging enough?  Discuss.

When I jotted down my initial reactions this is what I came up with, warts and all:

  • The conclusions are based on interviews with thirty or so Cancer Research UK scientists so, naturally, it reflects the priorities of that community. Nothing wrong in that and many of them are common to us all across science. But if you’re fighting for a rarer cause then your concerns are probably a bit more ‘fund’-amental. 
  •  Other partners involved in research such as patients might have an alternative but helpful perspective.
  • The recommendations are all good but quite specific and tactical. Each has a strategic role to play but it would be good to have  seen something in it to say how it might all hang together in terms of a coherent vision for UK medical research.
  • It misses some of the big stuff. To take clinical research for instance it rightly talks about the new Health Research Authority but there are other tussles that need addressing to get us further – how to integrate all the parts of NIHR into one system for instance, or how to engage the public in such a way as to drive up participation in and recruitment to trials. This is the additional stuff that is going to weigh us down.
  • I would like to have seen it pose some strategic questions for debate rather than simply proposing answers to a much-spoken about but ill-defined problem. What are the main challenges to how we do things now and is our model sustainable in the long-term? Again, things like clinical trials networks are well-embedded in the world of cancer but have some way to go in other fields.  How do we get there…quickly?
  • It doesn’t really look at the relative role played by different research funders and how this might be thought through – together – so we are more strategic as a community. Should charities be clustering around disease areas for instance in the way that we have therapeutic clusters developing between academics and industry (that’s off the top of my head)?

I just throw this out there.  As I am sure they would readily admit, Cancer Research UK does not have all the answers to our woes and that’s an open invitation to the rest of us.  So, if this document gets us to think a little deeper and debate more then that has to be a good thing.   

In that spirit I welcome it just as others have.  But I can’t quite get rid of a nagging feeling that it would have been great if it had gone just that little bit further.

A 'silver cloud' with a dark lining? – medical research charities in the recession

I suspect you may have seen the bleak forecast made by charity chief executives in the latest National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) survey published today.  97% of those surveyed said they expected economic conditions to be negative and 55% advised that they would be reducing their staff.

Tough times indeed.  And so this seems an opportune moment to publish for the first time, AMRC’s up-to-date evidence of how medical research charities in particular are faring.  If you have time to spare, you can find the summary results from our survey conducted in February (and interpretation) here.  The headline figure of 63% of our members saying the affect of the recession was significant or very significant certainly bears out what chief execs are saying in the NCVO study.  If nothing else, it underlines the point that charities are suffering in general.

I tend to agree withStuart Etherington from NCVO that, if the Government is really serious about charities being a full partner in the economy, then it better get its act together and develop a growth strategy with us, for us, and fast.

But forgive me if I necessarily concentrate on making a few, brief science-focused comments and observations based on our own survey:

The good news is that the forecasts for research expenditure by AMRC’s members are on a par with the last time we did this survey in 2009 – if not a little better.  Then, 63% of member charities said their future funding would stay the same and 21% said they would be increasing funding.  This year, 55% said they would be maintaining their funding at the same levels and 32.5% said they would be increasing it.

On the down side, a slighter higher number of members – 12.5% this year versus 8% last time – say they do not intend to fund new research this year or plan to reduce funding.    The economy is perhaps amplifying the diversity in the sector – particularly the difference between the top and the tail of the AMRC family –  just as corrections in any market are wont to do.  The texture of the comments provided by charities is also interesting in showing how a) pressures elsewhere are rippling across to our members (a further point is made on this below) but also b) the the very significant strategic rethink  some organisations are undertaking as opposed to a mere trimming of activity.

This year we deliberately asked our members for their first impressions of the impact of the spending review.  Three themes emerge.

The first is anecdotal only but the squeeze on public finances and cuts to services elsewhere is forcing some medical research charities who also provide care services, to consider diverting funds from research to the latter.  As I say in the survey report:

‘Interestingly, this year we are beginning to see a narrative emerge which reports that economic conditions are not just impacting income but the growth and room for manoeuvre for charities in fulfilling their objectives.  As one respondent put it: 

 ‘The impact is not limited to income, but more about how we will need to use our funds. As a charity that encompasses both care and research, we are beginning to see the impact of statutory retreat, with a significant rise in requests for support from patients and families. This is likely to require us to divert funds from research to care-based activities.’

How far and wide this trend extends only time will tell.

The second is a perception among members of shrinkage in the research infrastructure which – a bit like the proverbial air bubble in one’s recently covered text book which simply moves elsewhere when pressed – means extra pressure in other parts of the system.

Which leads me onto the third – as predicted by Dame Bridget Ogilvie in her guest blog here last autumn .  Namely, that AMRC member charities are beginning to see an increase in the number of grant applications they are receiving.  More than one Chief Executive has already expressed to me the difficulties of managing this, both in terms of administration but also in terms of ensuring they continue to derive the highest quality from the ideas being put forward.

Finally, today we have also updated our data to show the sector’s research expenditure for 2010-2011.  During that period, AMRC’s member charities spent £1.137 billion on research (excluding capital expenditure) versus £1,078 billion last year.  A slight increase therefore and a record to be proud of given the environment.  But the salutory story looking back over the longer term, is that this is the smallest increase we have seen since 2005 and the first quantitative indication of what economists might call a ‘slow-down.’

Being an optimist by nature I comfort myself with the knowledge that medical research remains the No. 1 cause that the public gives to.  But it would appear today that even this silver cloud has a somewhat dark lining.

The message to supporters and the public remains the same as it has over the past few years – your donations are vital to charities continuing to support medical research of patient benefit!

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.

Science budget: where will the money go?

If you are looking for the detail of today’s announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on the science budget allocations for the spending review period then please look at the excellent summary by our policy and public affairs manager, Becky Purvis, here.

Further perspective from me in due course.  But, given Breast Cancer Campaign’s letter on CRSF last week and our ongoing campaign on this issue, I am very pleased about the Government’s guideline to HEFCE that they allocate research funding to universities with the aim of protecting funding from external sources including that from medical research charities.  We’ll know more in the New Year.

UKCMRI Gets Go-ahead…and news on CST

Those who visit this blog regularly will know that we’ve been following progress with the plans to build the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in London ever since our first post.  So, in what feels like an early Christmas present for science, it is good to be able to report that yesterday Camden Town Hall councillors gave their go-ahead to the project. 

 The Wellcome Trust has a straightforward press notice on it (they are one of four partners involved, the others being Cancer Research UK, UCL and the Medical Research Council) but I can highly recommend the UKCMRI website as well where you can get a better idea of what the centre will look like and what it will do.  Let’s hope the new centre will be snowproof unlike the rest of London.

In other news this week..this hasn’t been picked-up very widely but the Prime Minister’s Office announced the membership of the re-constituted Council for Science and Technology which was set-up in the early nineties (and re-launched in 2007) to advise the PM on cross-cutting issues of strategic importance.  The Council is also advertising for ten independent members.

Thw word is that Monday looks like the day when the Government will announce the science budget allocations…and I also hope that we can publish our independent report of the AMRC/INVOLVE patient workshop on research regulation.

Times Letter on Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF)

A brief but important mention of the letter in today’s Times signed by over 100 cancer scientists and doctors.  The letter cites Breast Cancer Campaign (an AMRC member) and highlights the importance of the Government-backed Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) to the funding of research in universities by medical research charities. 

If you want a succinct but well-articulated case for CRSF then you need look no further than this letter.  And it’s significant in my opinion that the argument is being made directly by scientists themselves rather than charities.  This is not special pleading.  The fact is that the Fund is an important foundation for the partnership between Government, universities and charities in the name of research, and a vital mechanism for helping to leverage research funds from our sector.

You may also wish to look at the joint statement on CRSF that AMRC produced with BHF, Breast Cancer Campaign, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, Universities UK and the Russell Group in July this year.  The statement was submitted with our spending review submission.

All our discussions with Government thus far suggest the arguments for the Fund have been accepted just as those on ‘science = economic growth’ were taken on board by HM Treasury with its spending review announcement.  But how this translates into actual money won’t be known for possibly a few weeks yet. So letters like today’s can play a useful role in keeping the issues to the fore.

OECD Publishes Science Outlook Report 2010 inc. UK profile

So the OECD – which publishes a series of ‘state of…’ reports throughout the year – has today (Tuesday 14th December) published its Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2010.

If you are a member of the public it looks as if you can only download a summary of the report at the moment.  Overall messages seem to be:

Science, technology and industry are vital to long-term economic growth and it is essential for ‘countries to ‘maintain productive investments in knowledge.’  The press release is stronger and says ‘must’ maintain investment.

The policy response of OECD countries is showing some signs of divergence with some economies increasing investment and others not.  It warns  that reducing resources for public research may reduce human resources available for innovation in the long-run.

Overall, growth in R&D spending in the OECD area slowed during 2007 and 2008

In contrast, some non-OECD countries such as China have invested significantly in science and are becoming ‘serious players.’  China’s R&D spend as a % equivalent of OECD spend was 13.1% in 2008, up from around 5% in 2001

There is a ‘greening’ of research strategies in many countries while health and quality of life remain important priorities.

There is a growing emphasis on international collaboration in national strategies and it singles out Germany and the Nordic countries as examples.

The mix of policies by which governments support innovation is complex and will continue to grow in complexity.  Policy coherence can be  improved through’multi-actor’ forums it says, supported by information systems and advanced analytical tools.

There is also a country profile for the UK that you can read. It says the UK continues to perform strongly (we are third in the ranking of countries by number of articles published (the US and Japan being ahead of us) although R%D spend remans well below the OECD average.  The spider diagram in this summary is worth a look.  It paints quite a positive picture of where the UK lies as against OECD averages.

But whether we’ll see such a healthy report in one or two years time remains to be seen….

The not quite white paper on growth

UPDATE: You can find the Growth Review document published jointly by HM Treasury and the Department for Businesss here.  A quick skim through its pages suggests a collection of ‘already known’ initiatives with a short section at the back announcing a sector-by-sector consultation on barriers to growth.  From what is in the document, it is not clear how this consultation or discussion is going to be co-ordinated as yet. 

Earlier today I said…

If you have been reading the newspapers today you’ll know that the on/off again growth white paper is now going to emerge this afternoon as a discussion paper.

Seems likely – given what Willetts and others have been saying over the last six months – that there will be a section on life sciences although I might be wrong.  Judging by the press reports the Government is going to ask different sectors to design a blueprint for driving growth in their area.  In terms of the life sciences I would have thought that this is a given-job for the Office for Life Sciences which er …..produced a blueprint about 18 months ago now.  I am not sure what comes after a blueprint.

Will post more about the impending Picassoesque blueprint era of economic planning by the Coalition Government as we know it.

Earl Howe's Speech at the AMRC AGM

 I thought you may be interested in this extract from the Health Minister, Earl Howe’s, speech to out AGM on Wednesday:

It also gives me pleasure to note [that] AMRC member expenditure on research having exceeded £1 billion for the year for the first time. Given the economic circumstances, I think this is something about which you should all feel immensely proud.

 Research history

 Indeed, that feeling of pride should be shared by everyone involved in medical research.

 Since the NHS was established in 1948, research has brought incalculable benefits for patients. Treatments have been improved. Inequalities have been reduced. Productivity has been increased.

 The contribution made by medical research charities in facilitating these benefits has been, and continues to be, enormous.  The lives of people with wide-ranging needs – those with mental illness, long-term conditions, dementia – change because of the work done by the organisations represented in this room.

The coalition greatly values the efforts and dedication of all involved: from those who raise money through sponsored activities, to those who plan and implement strategy. For that to still be happening during a time of economic uncertainty is truly heartwarming.

Together with funders and donors in the public and private sectors, research charities have helped place this nation at the forefront of medical research.  Currently, the UK ranks second to the USA in share of world citations to clinical papers.

And it is our job to support the research community in its efforts.

In 1991, four years after the AMRC was established, it was a Conservative government that set up the NHS Research and Development programme.  I was but a humble transport whip back then.

Now, nineteen years later, the commitment of the coalition government to health research has been emphasised both in the Strategic Spending Review and in our White Paper, “Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS”.

It’s on record. It’s there for everyone to see. Because we know how central research is to every aspect of the NHS.

Future direction

 But of course, commitment is nothing without actual progress. So what can you, the people in this room, expect to see from us? How will we enable the research community to keep on innovating?

To start off, the coalition will demonstrate its dedication by increasing spending on health research in real terms over the next four years. 

Some may question the wisdom of this increase, given funds are so tight. But to them I say – this is precisely the time where innovation, investigation and invention becomes most valuable.

Research saves money. I get the impression I may be preaching to the converted, eulogising medical research with the Association of Medical Research Charities. But it’s true. It allows us to identify new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating disease. It is essential if we are to increase the quality and productivity of the NHS, which are, after all, the best ways of making efficiency savings.

From the extra funding, we will provide support to the National Institute for Health Research so it can play a full role in pulling basic scientific advances into tangible benefits for patients and the economy. 

We are also providing £220 million of capital funding for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. I attended the signing ceremony the other day and am tremendously excited about the venture.  The Centre is due to open in 2015. It will help drive forward the prevention treatment of disease by researching biology, developing technologies and engaging with the public.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will ensure that Medical Research Council expenditure is maintained in real terms, ensuring total health research funding will increase across all sectors.

And through the intrinsic bond between the NHS and universities, the National Institute for Health Research – NIHR – is turning laboratory-based discoveries into cutting-edge treatments that make a real difference to people’s lives. Through the internationally-recognised Biomedical Research Centres and Units, the NIHR is helping translate pure research into practical success.

That is something particularly relevant to us here today. I know that 37% of all studies supported through the NIHR Clinical Research Network are funded by AMRC members. I applaud your input in this work.

Earlier this year I visited one of these Units at Moorfield Eye Hospital. The quality and inventiveness of the work I saw was quite staggering. Amongst other things, I was shown the projects currently being developed by NIHR-supported teams on glaucoma. They were developing ways to identify glaucoma sooner, treat it better and research it more thoroughly than ever before.

This work is invaluable. So the White Paper explicitly states that we will continue to promote the role of Biomedical Research Centres and Units, Academic Health Science Centres and Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care, to develop research and turn it into improvements in education and patient care.

Innovation pathway

Of course, for this to happen, there need to be efficient ways for innovations to reach the patients that need them. This must be across the NHS.  

That is the difference, I think, between invention and innovation – successful application.

It is crucial that best practice, innovative ways of working and new technologies are not only identified and adopted locally, but are shared and spread across the NHS.  Our challenge – both mine and yours – is to achieve the systematic adoption and diffusion of innovation at pace and scale. To make the NHS a true champion of innovation.

This means we must not only enable innovation, but also encourage a climate in which adoption of innovation is welcomed. In which people believe innovation will improve their lives and their work.

My department will be focusing on greater decentralisation, greater responsibility for GPs and patients and a Big Society. This will help create incentives to encourage the systematic adoption of innovation, empowering patients and society by putting them in control. It will create a ‘pull’ – a demand – for new ideas and technologies as well as ‘push’ – a supply.

We want to encourage the uptake of new medicines. So we have developed new national metrics and more are in the pipeline. These metrics will show clinicians what their international peers are prescribing.

And we will reform the payments and incentives system, concentrating more on outcomes. This will not be easy. Value is not easily defined. But we will work with patients, and we will work with clinicians, and we will work with industry and charities, to define what the incentives will be. 

The fact is, innovation is booming.

Regional Innovation Funds generated nearly 2,000 applications this year, with productivity measurements suggesting projects achieving returns on investments of between 60 and 2600%.

A recent independent study from the Kings Fund and Innovation Unit reported that innovation now seen as ‘core business’ for the NHS, specifically at board level.

And of course there are the Expos. Expo 2009 was a great success and Expo 2011 in March will be even bigger and better.

Regulation

And yet there is still more we can do.

Recently, the UK has gained something of an unwanted reputation as the regulatory capital of the world. A reputation for complexity. For inconsistency. For convolution.

It is unacceptable to me and to the coalition that research in this country could be hindered by form-filling and box-ticking.

We have asked the Academy of Medical Sciences to conduct an independent review of the regulation and governance of medical research.  It will report soon. 

When it does, we will look at the legislation and bureaucracy that affects medical research and radically simplify it.  To allow you, the researchers, the freedom from paperwork that will best support our shared goals.

We are considering a national research regulator and expect the Academy’s working group to make detailed recommendations about that.

We also want to reduce the regulatory burden that charities face when they engage in research.  The National Research Ethics Service and the National Institute for Health Research have already made some headway in harmonising different processes.  I want to thank them what they have done.

Conclusion

This Government values the input of charities in medical research. It creates jobs, it shares knowledge and it ensures patients receive access to the highest-quality treatment, preventative care and outcomes.

We are committed to a future in which research continues as a core function of the NHS. This commitment is written down in the White Paper, where everyone can see it.

My department already works closely with your organisations. I look forward to that relationship continuing and developing to achieve what is our joint aim – to have health outcomes as good as any in the world.

Thank you.

David King on science funding

Former Government chief scientific adviser, David King, writes eloquently on the Nature  blog today about his concerns over the cuts in science funding announced last week.

Capability Dave announces cluster therapy for research

Monday saw the Science Mnister, David Willetts, and Health Minister, Earl Howe, announce what are being called therapeutic capability clusters (research consortia)  at the ABPI/BIA conference in London.  PharmaLetter has an article on it and what I think is the formal news release can be found on Pharma Live.

Don’t be fooled by the PR speak which makes it sound as though this entity has just been launched.  As the MRC comment implies, work on getting this thing off the ground has been going on for months – well before the General Election.  But going public is significant in the sense it means that the potential hurdles standing in the way of its feasibility – like pharmaceutical companies sharing their data – have been overcome.

It’s unfortunate – he says in a rather grumpy way – that no one seems to have mentioned the involvement of some leading charity funders up to this point such as Arthritis Research UK.  In actual fact it is worth pointing out that the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research (OSCHR) has been very pro-active in engaging releveant charities in the two therapeutic areas concerned – inflammatory and immune diseases.

On the back of the spending review I would also say that yesterday’s news is quite an important political vote of support for OSCHR and it’s role in engineering partnership working for clinical research.  In the run-up to 20th October there were some whispers that OSCHR might change/migrate/vanish etc etc.  But this very tangible initiative and the up-front way in which it is being badged with OSCHR’s name by Ministers indicates that its place in the world is much more scure.

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.

Willetts on the science settlement

An extract from today’s speech by the Science Minister, David Willetts, at the HEFCE conference in London.  Medical research charities will be pleased with the recognition of their role in delivering research that he mentions several times:

The other main news from the Chancellor yesterday concerned funding for science and research. It is good news for HEFCE’s QR funding and Higher Education Innovation Fund, and good news for the Research Councils and National Academies.

It is proof that this Government recognises the fundamental role of science and research in rebalancing the economy and restoring economic growth. Despite enormous pressure on public spending, the overall level of funding for science and research programmes has been protected in cash terms. And as we implement the efficiency savings identified by Bill Wakeham, we should be able to offset the effects of inflation – thus maintaining research funding in real terms.

There has also been a great deal of pressure to maintain flexibility in government spending. A stable investment climate for science and research – as we all know – allows universities and research institutes to plan strategically, and gives businesses, public services and charities the confidence to invest in the research base. I am delighted to confirm, therefore, that the ring-fence for science and research programmes has therefore been maintained.

Across the country, we have excellent departments with the critical mass to compete globally and the expertise to work closely with business, charities and public services. This £4.6 billion settlement for science and research should mean that we can continue to support them.

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.

The good, the not so good and the uncertain

I can only think of turning the last few hours of trying to absorb today’s announcements and figures in the following way:

The good

  • Surely even the harshest critic would have to acknowledge that, comparatively speaking, science fared well in today’s spending review.  It was certainly spared the savage cuts that we are seeing elsewhere and that were long muted. 
  • The fact that the basic components of the funding regime remain intact means continuity and stability – qualities often overlooked or indeed deliberately attacked in politics but crucial to productivity.
  • The ring-fencing of the science budget, not just because of the protection that it affords, but because it helps to ensure transparency and scrutiny of the science budget.
  • The fact that the government has listened and an important argument about the role of science in the economy and society was won with HM Treasury – it by no means seemed that way just a few weeks ago.
  • The commitment to the Medical Research Council (MRC) and maintaining its budget ‘in real terms’ and also to big ticket items like UKCMRI.
  • The strong narrative in support of clinical research generally.
  • The coalescence of many voices in science behind a common aim…as necessary in good times as well as bad

The not so good

  • A 10 % cut in real terms will still be painful.  Even with the sort of efficiency measures recommended by the Wakeham report some surgery is going to be required somewhere. 
  • What this means in terms of our international competitivenes.

..but, as said, it could have been far worse.

The uncertain

  • The first is the pernennial worry for charities about the settlement for the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) under the QR settlement which has yet to be hammered out.  It is a key lever for our involvement and underpins our partnership with universities.  So, plenty of negotiations to be had yet.
  • The second is that charities will undoubtedly come under pressure to fund more research at a time of less resource.    Competition will be fierce.  This will come with its own associated stresses as we tried to point out in our letter to The Times last week.
  • With less news forthcoming about other research councils some have already intimated the need to ensure what happens here does not undermine interdisciplinary research and partnership. 
  • ….and the great unknown is the extent to which the Browne report recommendations re: tuition and teaching will have a knock-on impact on science and future generations of scientists.

What happens next?

I think the coalesced lobby needs to push on now.  The near-term objective must be to make sure the forthcoming growth white paper translates today’s statement of intent by the Coalition Government into a cohesive plan.

In flying one is taught how to use the circle of uncertainty principle when lost: find a fixed landmark and circle until one can identify where one is by reference to your map. 

The run-up to today has felt a little like that. We have had a fixed landmark in the CSR.  Now, at least, we know how much fuel we have on board (even if it is not as much as we would like).  And it looks likely there is a place to land.  Doing so safely and in one piece is the next and perhaps hardest part to deliver.

CSR – AMRC reaction on science settlement

UPDATE

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.

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