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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.
So the UKCMRI partners were in front of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee yesterday as were representatives of the local community. Meanwhile the Science Minister, David Willetts, announced that the Government had agreed the business plan for the new centre as put forward by the Medical Research Council (MRC). A good day all in all for the Centre and its supporters.
Interestingly UKCMRI is mentioned in two diagnostic articles looking back at last week’s announcement by Pfizer. The first is by Andrew Jack in the Financial Times. The second is by Colin Macilwein in NatureNews. Each piece has a different accent with the latter taking a slightly more critical stance as regards the relationship between Government and pharma. But there are also themes common to both around the need to reduce regulation and for better data sharing by companies.
I suppose Pfizer’s Sandwich plant and UKCMRI are both of their time and I thought David Cooksey’s (Chair, UKCMRI) take on how UKCMRI will differ from what has gone before in the way it will cluster capabilities and knowledge was quite helpful to understanding why UKCMRI is so important to UK science.
There was a lot of talk about the science ‘ecosystem’ at the time of the Spending Review and the need for the Government to avoid breaking it by not thinking through the consequences of its actions. That’s the real issue about Pfizer and Sandwich, that together with other pharma cuts over the last few years, the UK has lost a significant amount of its pharma R&D capacity and capability with major knock-on effects for all including medical research charities.
Against that background, initiatives such as UKCMRI take on even greater importance but the Government needs to think more strategically if we are to better manage the ecosystem going forward. A TaskForce in Sandwich is important to managing the impact on the local community but we could do with a national Task Force as well. One can only load so much onto UKCMRI.
And..finally from the sector…my congratulations to Alzheimer’s Research Trust who changed their name to Alzheimer’s Research UK yesterday and have a new website to boot.
On the face of it you might think this a very Friday afternoon sort of article. But, as a discussion of how European foundations operate in a research funding context, it is is extremely interesting.
The news peg for it is that plans are afoot by the European Commission to present a regulation for a European Foundation Statute by the end of 2011. Very simply the Statute would make it easier for foundations and charities to operate across the EU including raising funds. The idea has been in the works for some time and there is a public consultation open until February 28th. See the European Foundation Centre website for more information – they also have a very active research forum.
I am not that keen on the European Commission’s pitch that this would enable charities to fill the gaps left by cuts in public expenditure on research by EU Governments (remember that argument from the spending review?). Nonetheless the idea of enabling charities to generate greater funds is to be supported.
You may be interested to know that AMRC has been successful in getting an ESRC internship this Spring to look at NGO activities in support of medical research across the UK – as a comparative study but also to help direct our efforts to build cross-border alliances. Currently our strongest links are with equivalent organisations in the US, Canada and Eire. I am certain we could play an important role in marshalling voices across Europe in the same way as happens among disease-specific patient communities. And Genetic Alliance UK is well-known for its work in this arena.
Towards a European AMRC, that’s what I say.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
I can only think of turning the last few hours of trying to absorb today’s announcements and figures in the following way:
- 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 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.
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.