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The Science Minister, David Willetts MP, has been speaking today at University UK’s Spring Conference (have UUK actually seen the weather out there?).
The full text of his speech is available from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website but I was very pleased to see this section in it:
‘There’s another issue too. We are looking within BIS – in light of changes to undergraduate funding and finance at how we support postgraduate study in future. We have a successful postgraduate sector that has grown substantially over recent years and has done so with comparatively little Government funding or regulation. Many people have raised concerns about the impact that higher graduate contributions could have on participation in postgraduate study – and it would be clearly detrimental to this country if we saw a big fall in postgraduate numbers.
So I have asked Professor Sir Adrian Smith – who, as you know, produced a comprehensive report on postgraduate study in March of last year – to reconvene his review panel and consider this issue in light of the new funding environment.
On research funding, HEFCE has a four-year allocation and should announce institutional allocations for the 2011/12 QR Grant, indicative allocations for HEIF, and teaching allocations on March 16th. Together with other funding bodies, HEFCE will also announce shortly the way forward on the Research Excellence Framework and impact assessment.’
The impact on postgraduate education of changes in the higher education funding is one of the issues that has been raised with me most by AMRC member charities. Not surprising really when you consider, as an example, the number of new and ongoing postgraduate studentships (approx 700) being funded by them as we speak – they are an important way of bringing new scientists on as well as fostering and supporting important research activity.
As I’m sure you will be aware from the main news headlines about this speech, David Willetts, has announced a delay of the higher education white paper originally slated to be published in March. This is so the Government can take into account the tuition fees that universities are likely to charge.
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.
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.
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.
RAND Europe and the Office of Health Economics (OHE) last week published this rather fascinating occasional paper from a seminar in May. It examines the spillovers (wider benefits) from biomedical and health research and seems highly salient given what is going on. I thought some of the diagrams were helpful in visualising the multilying effect of investment and collaboration across the research funding community and helping us to define what the spillovers are. As the paper concludes these must be targets for further research.
It also gives me an opportunity to flag-up that we will be publishing our ‘Ways and Means’ report looking at research charity collaborations and the wider benefits, at our AGM and Annual Conference on 24th November 2010.
If you are looking for coverage of the Browne review of university funding here’s as good a starting place as any: Daily Telegraph.
Science at the Conservative Party conference – curtain down calls an end to well-rehearsed choreography in the nick of time
After three weeks on the road it is only to be expected that the fringe meetings take on the choreography of a well-rehearsed show. It certainly felt that way with tonight’s Royal Society fringe. The performances were faultless but there was never any real hope of artistic interpretation.
The science minister, David Willetts, sang well from his hymn sheet but did not, dare not, go beyond the notes or melody we have heard before. It must be a strange existence being a minister ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR); so much to possibly say, so much that can not be said.
At times tonight’s fringe almost felt like the summing up by respective lawyers in a legal case with the final decision now left to Judge Osborne and his cabinet. All the talk around about the conference has been how David Willetts and Vince Cable are persuaded by the arguments but that those to be persuaded are burning the midnight oil in HM Treasury. So I think he and others are probably finding it helpful that the lobby remains active against ‘cavalier’ cuts.
He said he had found the discussion illuminating and expressed the hope that, whatever the outcome in two weeks time, ‘people will feel we have reached a judgement that is fair’ and that they would work with the coalition government to ensure science in the UK remained ‘vigorous, health and strong’.
I was interested in Willetts’ recollection of his early career days at HM Treasury and the nightmare scenario that then existed of the government having to take its orders from the IMF. It perhaps explains why his peers in the coalition government seem so adamant about going so hard at cutting the budget deficit and quickly.
If I am honest, it was one of the new players tonight who interested me most. Richard Lambert from the CBI who seemed more willing to play the scenario game than anyone else. He concluded his opening remarks by saying: ‘A squeeze is absorbable but it has to go with a strong statement of clear intent.’ ‘Spending should be focused on human capital,’ he said. It was also a sobreing moment when he astutely pointed out that in terms of cutting public expenditure at BIS, the department only has three pots to play with – Higher Education, Training and Science, ‘ the rest are just crumbs.
You can always trust a journalist to cut to the chase. The last question of the evening went to a journalist from the Sunday Times who asked what a 15% cut would mean for science.
But with catering staff waiting to set up for the next show, the curtain went down on the this final performance before David Willetts was given the chance to answer. Just in the nick of time.
‘So we will give priority to spending that supports growth in our economy. That means investment in the transport schemes, the medical research and the communications networks that deliver the greatest economic benefit.’ George Osborne, 4 October 2010
Welcome, good, important? Yes.
Victory, game over? Of course not.
A noticeable frisson went through the room when we heard through iPhones, Blackberries, other assorted gadgetry and plain old word-of-mouth that Osborne had made the above statement in his conference speech today.
Chancellors of the Exchequer, as all ministers, make conference speeches that are highly crafted over many weeks with each statement and word poured over. There is rarely anything that is off-the-cuff. Everything is deliberate. So Osborne will have chosen to make a clear reference to medical research perhaps in response to the lobby, perhaps because of its popular appeal.
So, yes, it is an important statement of intent and it gives reason to be optimistic. But it is not reason enough to stop campaigning hard for the best possible settlement for science. Why?
To begin with there is a degree to which Osborne is merely confirming what has been highly conjectured already. We already know that the health budget including the health research budget held by NIHR is being afforded a level of protection under the CSR as the government has stated many times.
If he is signalling that this protection now includes what the MRC also spends then that would be significant. But we don’t know and won’t know of course until the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement is announced on 20th October 2010. One of the problems with ministerial speeches to conference – as opposed to in their normal day-to-day duties as a minister – is that there are plenty of advisers to explain the political interpretation that is desired but no officials involved to help explain what they mean in practice.
He did, it is true, talk up innovation using Birmingham as an example of a city of invention:
‘Here in this city of innovation let us find the inspiration to turn today’s Britain into an ideas factory for the world. Innovative, ingenious and open for business. For the hard economic choices we make are but a means to an end. And that end is prosperity for all.’
But this is science speak in the loosest terms and he could have chosen to say so much more if he had wanted.
I continue to feel that we are hearing a clearer, more certain articulation of aspirations on medical and health research in Osborne’s speech today and in other coalition government statements (see my blog yesterday about Earl Howe speaking at Sunday night’s fringe) than we are on the broader science budget.
So that is why when someone asked me after Osborne’s speech what we do now, I said it is very simple: ‘We continue to press hard.’ And that means persuading government to to invest strongly in the science base, the platform from which successes in medical and health research ultimately stem. Pledges on medical and health research will not amount to as much as the government would like to believe without this commitment to what underpins it as well.
The ‘Science is Vital’ campaign petition is creeping up to 13000 so please keep signing. Plus there’s a rather lovely guest blog by Jenny Rohn (whose idea it initially was) on Martin Robbins Guardian blog. It is well worth a read.
Congratulations of course to IVF pioneer Bob Edwards for being awarded the Nobel Prize today some 30+ years after the first IVF baby was born. I wonder if it counts as evidence of impact by the government’s definition?
Report on ‘Research to the rescue’ fringe tomorrow morning!
Two down, one to go. Here’s science related ‘matter’ at the Conservative Party Conference which starts in Birmingham tomorrow.
Birmingham University was of course the venue for the Science Minister, David Willett’s, first speech after taking office. I am looking forward to being one of the hosts when he joins us for a roundtable breakfast on Wednesday. I have been speculating whether he eats ‘clusters’ for breakfast or plain old corn flakes person.
In terms of the formal conference agenda items of interest include debates on ‘Big Society and People Power’ (cue a reminder to sign the Science is Vital peititon which has over 10,000 signatures now including support from the Wellcome Trust) on Sunday afternoon, ‘The Economy’ on Monday morning before lunch, debates on publci services and welfare onTuesday and the Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, speaks on Wednesday afternoon. You can see the agenda here.
My pick on the fringe….I shall be chairing the ‘Innovation as a cure’ meeting organised by Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and ABHI on Sunday evening at 5.45 or there is the Breakthrough Breast Cancer tea party starting at 5.30pm if you prefer, and another of our charities, Ovarian Cancer Action is looking at women’s health at 9.30. The latter features Sarah Wollaston MP who is on the Health Select Committee and a GP.
You can kick off your Monday at 8am with Birmingham Science City which has a fringe entitled ‘Innovation and the Green Revolution.’ A bit later at 12.30pm why not decompress after George Osborne MP’s speech to conference by going to the British Chambers of Commerce debate. I only mention it because the Financial Secretary, Stephen Timms MP, and Shadow Business Minister, Will-Butler-Adams MP, will be speaking. Surely after hearing from this trio we might be able piece together a narrative for economic growth?
But I am sure most of you would prefer to hear David Willetts speak at the NESTA fringe which is taking place at the same time (12.30pm) on the subject of ‘Made in Britain: Building a 21st century economy.’ Either that or hearing Earl Howe, the Department of Health Minister responsible for medical and health research, speak at the ‘Research to the rescue’ fringe at 12.45pm hosted by BHF, Diabetes UK and the Stroke Association.
The Guardian’s engaging Michael White chairs the Health Hotel debate on Monday evening (19.30) and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley MP is speaking at the Health Hotel reception afterwards (which is invitation only sadly, what happened to the days when you could walk in to these things).
The 1994 Group and others hold a lunchtime debate on the future of higher education at 12.30pm on Tuesday and so are Reform with Universities UK at 1.00pm with David Willetts MP invited. This one is called ‘Building the Future: Higher education and economic growth.’ [nb: one of the perils of conferences is the fact that many similarly-themed fringe meetings clash but I find you can run from one to the other if you are quick on your feet).
Also of interest on Tuesday lunchtime is the Asthma UK, Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd and Smith Institute fringe: ‘Can Health Cuts Be Good For You?’ Andrew Lansley is down to speak at this one which starts at 1.00pm.
The Royal Society takes its ‘Scientific Century’ debate to conference on Tuesday evening at 7.30pm with David Willetts MP, Paul Wellings (Chair of the 1994 Group) and Brian Cox. The Chemical Industries Association pop up this week with their own event at 7.45pm looking at ‘Science Education: The next deficit’ which looks more like a reception but I might be wrong.
And that’s it….a much busier conference than the other two as you might expect. I look forward to seeing you there.
Forgive the headline which is a version of Benjamin Franklin’s: ‘Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.’
If you haven’t seen today’s Guardian splash on science cuts then you should really take a look. There is a wealth of detail but the human stories are the most absorbing aspect of the piece as always. At least one of the scientists interviewed (David Proctor), is conducting work funded by medical research charities.
It is a tragedy to see confidence in the future of UK science slipping away among our scientists in this way. It will certainly have an impact of medical research charities and it will undoubtedly mean that it will be harder to make an impact with the donations they receive.
What did Benjamin Franklin also say: ‘It takes many good deeds to build a reputation, and only one bad to lose it.’
…Next week I’ll be blogging from the Conservative Party Conference as usual and we will be publishing our response to the NHS White Paper plus bringing together the latest reports and evidence on public and patient involvement in research.
Nature blog contains an interesting item today looking at the impact of science funding cuts on different universities assuming that funds are directed away from 2* as opposed to 3* or 4* research – the excellence rating given under the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).
But William Cullerne Brown goes into much more detail, looking at different cut scenarios and their impact. Fascinating but unpal;atable reading.
The knock-on effects will be significant for charities. 80% of all charity funding for research (£1.1 billion in 2009-2010) goes to universities. And about 80% of this goes to universities who are members of the Russell Group. But, depending on the scenario, significant amounts of charity research will be vulnerable.
The pictures drawn here are helpful at least in, as Nature says, visualising what could happen to different institutions and making global figures begin to make sense in terms of the impact on the ground. Information that should be passed on to every MP with such an institution in their constituency. And you can do that through the Science is Vital campaign site.
In my potter around the conference exhibition this afternoon, I stumbled upon a stand for the ‘People’s Museum’ here in Manchester which charts the struggles of the working class and houses the Labour Party’s official archives.
I wish I had time to pop along if only to check whether my knowledge of political history is as good as I would like to think.
I won’t be the first to make the comparisons between the scenario inherited by Ed Milliband and that by Harold Wilson in 1963 – a demoralised party emerging from election defeat, the country faced by a massive deficit etc etc.
Almost to the day 27 years ago, Harold Wilson made his infamous ‘white heat of technology’ speech to the Labour Party conference in Scarborough. ‘The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry’ is what he actually said.
Brian Walden recounts in a BBC Online piece that later that day – 1 Oct 1963 – a trade union leader remarked that Harold Wilson had ‘captured science’. A strong statement indeed.
Ed Milliband’s speech today will no doubt be marked down as the ‘new generation’ speech and I understand his need to speak to his party above all at this time. But given the impassioned speeches I have heard from shadow ministers this week about the need for a good story on growth and the importance of science in that story I was disappointed that we did not even get a hint of either in the Ed’s opening gambit.
I looked back at the programme for the Scarborough Conference and noticed that Dick Crossman was also speaking on the same day as Wilson about the organisation of university research. Strange how these issues are cyclical, a shame that a sense of history is lost to us when facing the current.
I think Will Hutton said last night: ‘It is only science that can save us.’
Rumour has it that there is an outbreak of tonsilitis in the north-west at the moment…here’s hoping Ed Milliband is being kept in isolation until his leader’s speech this afternoon.
One thing I forgot to mention from last night’s meeting was David Lammy’s comment that the coalition government has yet to put together a convincing narrative for its growth strategy. We’ll have to see if Ed Milliband is able to do that today?
Meanwhile, I’ve heard positive things so far in terms of his stance on science. He has been interviewed in a special edition of a newsletter from ‘Scientists for Labour’ which is being hawked around here.
Imran Khan who is Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has blogged in The Guardian today about the science challenges facing Ed Milliband.
Andrew Miller MP, chair of the Science Select Committee who attended our breakfast this morning, said he was able to discuss life sciences and science strategy with Ed during the Labour leadership race.
The Manchester Town Hall bell tolled ominously as the 31 organisations around the table inside debated and discussed the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). But the meeting covered a lot of ground and I hope it was helpful for Andrew to hear how the interplay between different issues is finely poised and fiddled with at the owner (government’s) risk unless based on sound exertise and advice.
One of the industry representatives there said that their global HQ regarded the UK as a ‘problem child’ not only because of the challenges of the spending review but also because of the poor uptake of medicines here. So, in the same vein, I hope that the Science and Technology Select Committee which can roam across all departments will see cause to look at the whole innovation pipeline in due course.
The town hall bell stopped I am pleased to say which gives me some hope that as another participant said ‘there is still all to play for’ ahead of the CSR announcement on 20th October. Indeed, Andrew Miller encouraged us to bombard parliamentarians and others with views and perspectives now and after that date to ensure our concerns are heard.
Remember, Science is Vital.
First, a general observation. Less than one day here and I have met four ‘Eds’ already – more than in the previous ten years travelling the breadth of the UK. Strange that. But perhaps when you are faced by David Willetts you need as many ‘Eds’ as you can get.
I came expecting a muted, self-sorrowful Labour Party conference. But my assumptions have been confounded. This is a political party that, run out of town six months ago like the shamed sheriff who lost the biggest gunfight of them all, is now appearing on the horizon with renewed appetite for the affray.
Whether you agree with that analogy or not, the Labour Party is showing that its vital signs remain strong.
It was good to see 50+ delegates turn-up to the lunchtime fringe meeting ‘Innovation as cure’ organised by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and the Association of British Healthcare Industries (ABHI) and chaired by yours truly.
Robert France who was in Liverpool with me, spoke movingly again of the stem cell transplant received by his son, Jackson. Dionne Priddy described the hopelessness her family felt after her husband, Mark, was diagnosed with pre-senile dementia and entered a rapid decline. He died earlier this year and Dionne still ran the marathon just days later to raise £14,000 for dementia research.
Questions from the audience of patients, carers, scientists and politicians ranged far and wide – from informed consent to the bonfire of the quangos. The opposition health spokesperson, Baroness Thornton, said that she and the health team were committed to campaigning for, and championing, health research. She explained how there would be a review of health policies over the next 12 months in what was intended to be an inconclusive process drawing in external views, with workstreams looking into particular issues. She expressed concerns over the possible break-up of the HFEA and said that their message on the health white paper was that it is the ‘wrong white paper and the wrong bill at the wrong time.’
The Royal Society meeting this evening (co-hosted by the 1994 Group) was more sparky than that at the Lib Dems. The Shadow Higher Education Minister, David Lammy MP, spoke powerfully about his determination to fight science cuts, expressed concern over the possible disappearance of the ring-fencing of the science budget (I heard it was 50:50 whether it would stay or not, which would be a break with 30 years of history), and argued that the result of the general election was the worst possible outcome for science. With an obvious nod to Tony Benn in the audience he said that Labour’s passion for science ran deep and over many generations.
Will Hutton (of the Work Foundation), who often succeeds in turning on its head any preconceived notion you might have held on an issue, argued that he would cut all budgets before laying hands on the science budget since it was the source of growth and wealth creation from which everything else ultimately stems.
He said that those countries who invested most in science and technology would be those than benefited most from leaps in knowledge and innovation in the future. He also spoke passionately about the science ecosystem and the need to create better systems and institutions – innovation centres – to enable knowledge transfer.
In response to a question from the floor about what the science community could do in the face of the forthcoming challenges, all the panel agreed that the most important thing was to build the largest collaboration of supporters possible.
And given that, can I point you and encourage you to sign the Science is Vital petition (which I signed today). You’ll also find details of the planned rally and lobby of parliament on 9th and 12th October.
You may have heard the news headlines this morning about the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee letter to the Science Minister, David Willetts, expressing fears about a brain drain of scientists from the UK to other countries.
Reasons include people’s growing concern over possible cuts in science funding and what it could mean for their work, but also the attractive packages now being put on the table by other countries such as Australia. You can find the full text of the letter on BBC New Online here.
It makes for sobering reason not least because of the evidence put forward by the six universities contacted by the Committee. Whatever the Government might say about wanting to be an international centre for science, my fear is that a combination of the CSR and unhelpful policies such as the cap on non-EU migrants is creating a perception that reality does not match Ministerial statements.
‘Hold your nerve’ was the message to his party from Nick Clegg yesterday.
Well, this evening patients and their carers held their nerve by standing in front of conference delegates to tell their personal stories of fighting disease and the way research has helped, or could help, them.
In fact if you happen to be going to any of the remaining two party conferences I fully recommend you attend the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and Association of British Healthcare Industries (ABHI) fringe: ‘Innovation as a cure: how medical research can crack our toughest health problems.’ And not because of my eclectic style of chairing.
At this evening’s event we heard from Robert France about the life-saving stem cell transplant received by his son, Jackson (aged 7) following his diagnosis with leukaemia two years before. Rob gave an engaging account of the pioneering work that has enabled his son to begin to live a normal life. He also described how the opt-in system ffor cord blood donation and the consequent lack of donors in the UK, meant that the stem cells had to be taken from an umbilical cord imported from Australia. I think we all shared his bafflement at how this was possibly good for potential patients in the UK and also about the extra costs to the NHS of having to go abroad in this way.
Vicki Graham talked movingly about the impact that her husband, Jamie’s, diagnosis with Alzheimer’s had had on her and her family, and called for more research into the role that physicial activity might play in helping people to cope with her condition. They had their own personal experience to put forward of Jamie’s walking and rowing which had helped him enormously. Jamie (who joined us on the stand) and his rowing pals have raised over £80,000 for Alzheimer’s research.
Dan Jones from ABHI spoke well about the regulatory hurdles placed before research and the difficulties of getting innovation taken up by the NHS as a whole rather than in pockets around the country.
Baroness Northover who impressed yet again tonight I thought, urged people to get involved in the consultations on the NHS White Paper and on other aspects of emerging policy and shared her own personal story of being a carer.
But it was our patients who stole the show. As they did at the MND Association, Parkinson’s UK, MS Society and Neurological Alliance fringe a little later. This one was about the alarming challenge of brain disease in the UK. Professor Colin Blakemore takes some beating in terms of getting the message across but I thought Jean, who suffers from Motor Neurone Disease, again stole the show. She reminded us of the barriers that await patients when it comes to provision of care.
In fact we should all feel a sense of national shame to hear her account of the frankly bizarre decision-making in our health and social services that means she is not allowed a wheelchair to use outside because she doesn’t need to use a wheelchair all the time that she is indoors.
I think it was Kafka who referred to the ‘slime of a new bureacracy.’ Jean’s story implies quick-sand left by the old and one hopes the Coalition Government can free us all from it.
But, after a good week, I am determined to finish on a positive note. And that is, as I said this evening, there comes a point in much medical research where pioneering science depends on pioneering patients. No wonder they make such good advocates as well.
Policy-making is not immune to trends. The latest seems to be the ’roundtable’ meeting. I blame King Arthur myself (well, they say that trends do come round). But I bet he didn’t meet his knights at 9 or 8am.
This morning AMRC, the BioIndustry Association, Association of British Healthcare Industries and Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry held a roundtable breakfast entitled ‘Life Sciences – from research to patient.’
It was good to have the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore MP, there – not least because Scotland has a good story to tell on science – as well as Julian Huppert MP, Roger Williams MP and Evan Harris.
With a wide spectrum of people from patient groups, charities, industry, academia and the NHS in the room the conversation ranged widely across many issues – science funding, regulation, science in parliament. It was a good follow-on from last night’s Royal Society meeting and as ever the politicians were asking for solutions and anwers to the issues facing them.
I was pleased that the Royal College of Surgeons and BMA raised the issue of enabling more doctors to undertake research and the general career path issues facing the clinical academics of the future and a number of people raised the possible issues for clinical research that will confront us with the new health economy that Andrew Lansley is intent on establishing and on which I have blogged before.
There also seemed some positive signs that the Coalition Government understand the need to at least describe the key elements of a long-term strategy on science to accompany the CSR annoucnement and help build confidence about the future.
We spent a good portion of the discussion on the proposed cap on non-EU migrants and its impact on science. Indeed, I get a sense at this week’s conference that there is now real momentum behind amending the plans so that they become more workable for science. Vince Cable’s remarks to the FT at the weekend have been well-reported, but I understand that the Home Affairs Select Committee is now digging around the issue and there certainly seems consensus here that something needs to be done pronto. Suffice to say we need to keep putting the evidence in.
Perhaps this issue will be one of those that might demonstrate how Coalition Government can truly work in the public interest, with one partner articulating at the most senior levels a body of opinion to which a single-party Government might otherwise be impervious. Let’s hope so anyway.
A passing thought before I head back to the conference. There is a strong coalition of public, charity and private sector of organisations here under the banner of the ‘Health Hotel’ which co-ordinate fringe meetings etc and have an exhibition stand.
Given the fact that research and science do not have major billing at this or the other conferences (albeit better than any previous one I have been to) I wonder whether all the science organisations should come together in a ‘Science Lab’ type coalition in future years.
People often ask what the point of attending the party conferences is. There are many. But perhaps one of the most important is the opportunity to see, hear and talk to politicians in ‘conversational’ rather than ‘messaging mode.’
I thought one of those moments came this evening when Vince Cable addressed the Royal Society’s reception.
Indeed, one could say he handed out a dose of sobre reality to those assembled – a mixture of delegates and the science lobby – and a hint of what might make a real difference in the final analysis.
He said that he had heard the pitch from science over the last few months, and that he thought it was ‘a particularly good case.’ But that in the current environment, it was also necessary to make choices.
He then said more candidly that the Government: ‘Needed an indication of the priorities’ and that if the science community was not forthcoming with these then it would be up to politicians to make those choices: ‘It would be helpful to be helped to make choices,’ he said.
I am sure the irony was not lost on those present that his remarks followed a forceful introduction by the Chair of the meeting which contained the key messages that the Royal Society and many others have put out over the past six months. There is nothing wrong in that, as Cable said himself, but it was an interesting juxtaposition nonetheless.
With five weeks to go until the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) is announced the Government is now well into decision-making mode and testing each and every possible scenario of what it could do. I thought Cable was giving a signal tonight that it was still possible to be part of that conversation but that perhaps the current tune was rapdily outliving its usefulness to Government.
Campaigns are often lost or won not on how loud you shout or the coverage one gets but the extent to which you have been able to provide politicians with solutions and ways out of complex problems.
But these are always difficult scenarios for campaigners – getting the balance right between the rallying cry so necessary to get your supporters working hard, and entering into a dialogue which is about getting the best deal on paper in circumstances.
I spoke at an interesting event last week organised by OneNucleus, a membership organisation which brings together international life science and healthcare companies. The audience was packed with representatives of both large and small companies including many biotechs. It was the day before Vince Cable’s speech and much concern about what he would or would not say.
I see today that veture capitalists – who often provide the seed investment for spin-off companies to take research ideas forward and comercialise them – have weighed into the debate. It is significant because as you may remember Vince Cable sais he was keen to encourage more spin-offs as part of the Coalition Government’s strategy. There is an excellent piece on their concerns running on ‘Financial News’ run out of dow jones newswire.
The relevance to charities? As I found last week many such companies are anxious to forge alliances and partnerships with charities and patient groups as both sources of funding and patient experience that can help them make their products work better for patients.
I did warn you that things would really get going this week….and with two speeches in as many days you can be forgiven if you feel as if you have taken a left hook and then a right hook in quick succession.
Science Minister, David Willetts, was on the stump at a Universities UK conference today. He used his speech to say that universities have become too focused on research. You can find a BBC Online piece here. And I am sure many of you also heard Willetts on the today programme this morning interpreting yesterday’s speech by Vince Cable. The Independent covers it here. And just to show that I for one will not be applying a cap to my readership wherever they come from, here’s a piece from WalesOnline which is rather good in capturing views of experts there including nobel prizewinner Sir Martin Evans.
In the hurly burly yesterday it was remiss of me not to mention that the Academy of Medical Sciences had published its response to the Comprehensive Spending Review.