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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.

International clinical trials day and a bit of mopping-up

It is International Clinical Trials Day today and The Cochrane Library has worked with the UK Medical Research Council’s Network of Hubs for Trials Methodology Research to produce a set of new podcasts about clinical trials – well worth a listen.

There was a conference in Vienna this morning organised by the European Clinical Research Infrastructure Network (ECRIN) (Yes, you’ve missed that), and it is perhaps worth reminding everyone that there is an excellent information leaflet and booklet on clinical trials that was produced by the UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC) some years ago with AMRC’s help.

Some local research centres are also doing special awareness days to highlight their work – for instance, this one in Bath.  And I thought this was a rather nice milestone being reported by the Leeds Cancer Research UK Centre to mark the day – it has recruited 2,000 patients to trials in its first year of operation. 

And if, like me, you intend to hold a roundtable debate with your family this evening about the way forward for the clinical trial you might wish to use this as fodder.

Yesterday while I was at the INVOLVE meeting saying goodbye to its current Chair, Sir Nick Partridge, Mike Rawlins (Chair of the Academy of Medical Science’s Review of Research Regulation), John Bell (President of the Academy) and Mark Walport (Director of the Wellcome Trust) were giving a press briefing on their concerns about the impact of the Health and Social Care Bill.  Mark Walport was on The Today programme this morning

But if you are in danger of going to sleep, have a look at Anaesthesia UK and read the comments made in a speech by Professor Michael Rees, Co-Chair of the BMA’s Medical Academic Staff Committee, about how the NHS reforms are the latest in a long line of recent develops which now threaten to destablise ‘medical academia.’ 

The Today programme reported that the Department of Health had issued a statement saying the Wellcome Trust’s fears were unfounded.  I doubt that very much indeed.  Anyway, we’ll be going at the issue again in a week or so with some added oomph.

Finally, my deepest apologies to Y-Touring for not getting to their special film showing of ‘Mind the Gap.‘  I was mopping-up loose ends and frayed strands.

UKCMRI Task Gets Bigger

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.

Making the EU work better for research charities

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.

Health and Social Care Bill Published

After days of incessant pounding by critics and opponents the Government brushed itself down today and published its Health and Social Care Bill.  The text of the legislation can be found on the parliament website.

It is a titanic Bill – 353 pages, 137 clauses, 22 schedules long – and the vagaries of our parliamentary system will likely mean that some parts will not get so much as a nod and a wink.  Indeed, so vast are the changes afoot that the Department of Health has set up a new channel to help us all find our way around the reforms (not sure if it’s on Virgin Media yet).

However, a visit to the House of Lords today, understandably flush after their all-nighter this week, suggested that they are in no mood to let anything go through without significant challenge and a good deal of probing.  But they will need some help for sure, legislation is often more like a surrealist painting than cutaway drawing – the closer you get, the less you see. 

A quick flick through from a medical research standpoint suggests people might want to look at Clauses 13H and 13I and associated schedules which place a duty on the NHS Commissioning Board to promote innovation and research.

Good luck with it!  More later.

Getting touchy over the information revolution

Over the holidays I caught a BBC Radio 4 item about the days of the touch typist.  It was one of those gems of broadcasting which looked through a narrow lens to tell the listener much about how the world has changed.  It also brought back many memories of my time as a messenger at the old Department of Education delivering brown envelopes – many of them with a red flag meaning it was from the Minister’s office – to the typing pool.  About the same time my Dad (who was a schools inspector) got one of the first computers which sat in the corner of his office at the DofE in Arthur C Clarke fashion.  Indeed, I am not too sure who was more afraid of it – him or me.

Since then there has been an ‘information revolution’ of course,  And it just so happens that this is the title of the Department of Health consultation about information use and access in the health service to which AMRC has responded today .  We have made the following key points:

  • Research is central to the information revolution’s aspiration of delivering broad benefits to patients and society through improving access to information.
  • We welcome the government’s ambition that by 2015 “The quality and scope of information available for analysis and research will be considerably higher, more comprehensive and based on accurate recording.” and urge the government to work with us to ensure the information revolution can deliver this
  • Confidentiality and security must be central to the revolution to underpin patient support for the use of their data
  • Issues around the use of identifiable patient information in research must be addressed.
  • We urge that the recommendations of the Data Sharing Review and the ongoing work of the Research Capability Programme and Health Research Support Service be included in this strategy.
  • More focus is needed on informing patients to understand how their data will be used and supporting them to find out about research opportunities open to them.

The truth of the matteris that good information useage and good communication rely on sound leadership from the top – in this case Ministers. 

As we finalised our response this week, the irony was not lost on me that the Department should be seeking views on this issue shortly after a Christmas period in which it was roundly criticised for not pursuing a public information campaign on flu vaccination.  Why is it that, in this information age, all Governments wantonly cut back on communications, marketing and information activities?  Ultimatelyit can only short-change patients. 

I sometimes think that when politicians become Ministers they forget that they have become heads of ‘corporate’ beings.  Good communications is vital to whatever service their Department is delivering.  They neglect it at their peril  – a lesson learnt by most businesses long ago. 

For those wanting to get a grasp of some of the issues around the NHS White Paper ‘Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS’ of which the ‘Information Revolution’ is just one aspect, I encourage you to read yesterday’s House of Lords debate.  What would we do without the Upper House I ask myself?

It being the end of the week I should perhaps mention several other interesting bits of news from the last five days…

First, the data sharing agreement announced by the Wellcome Trust and other research funders.

Second, a union of national importance on the scale of William and Kate it may not be, but this week the Association of British Healthcare Industries (ABHI), Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI), BioIndustry Association and British In Vitro Diagnostics Association (BIVDA) announced the formation of LifeSciences UK to facilitate joint-working between different parts of the healthcare industry and strengthen their voice with Government.  

And, third, this item about Cancer Research UK setting up a c-team of experts composed of four world-class research groups to launch a new blitz on cancer by targeting rogue stem cells that cause tumours to spread and become untreatable.

That’s it this week from the A-team.

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 Public health white paper – a new school of thought

‘Healthy Lives, Healthy People,’ the White Paper on public health has been published and is available on the Department of Health website.

The news release sets out the Secretary of State’s ‘ladder of intervention’ – from the rather refreshingly titled  ‘do nothing’ up to ‘eliminate choice altogether’ – which sound like the different states of readiness one might find in one of the armed services. 

Public health will have a ring-fenced budget and the money will be straddled across local authorities (who will be the employers of Directors of Public Health) and a  new national organisation ‘Public Health England.’  

Public Health England will set outcome measures for public health and a new health premium will be awarded in areas according to progress made.  Public Health England will also be the repository of best practice and evidence and negotiate the new responsibility deal on public health between different partners including charities and industry.

You get the picture, if anything this is more about how we organise ourselves to deliver better public health than the interventions themselves.

Last night I said my mind would necessarily be focused on what the document says about public health research.  If the NHS white paper is anything to go by, my sense after a quick skim is that the intention is to see research embedded in how the new organisations do things rather than separate from or parallel too.   

But, in my opinion, the white paper also expresses a clear intent to beef-up delivery in public health research and strengthen the evidence-base for public health actions with the setting up of a new NIHR School for Public Health Research.  A new Policy Research Unit on Behaviour and Health will be established within the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and Public Health England will be expected to properly resource research into interventions happening outside the NHS.  Finally, it says that NIHR, Public Health England and others will work together to identify research priorities.

All this seems a positive change to the landscape.  I’m off to see which ‘level of intrusion’ I need to implement with my team.

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.

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 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.

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