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Last week news broke that the Royal Institution (RI) is looking for buyers for its hallowed Albermarle Street headquarters in London as part of a plan to ease its financial woes. These amount to £7million owed to creditors according to various reports.
There’s plenty of coverage of the affair in the UK media and a campaign is up and running – lead by various science luminaries – to keep the building from falling into the wrong hands (my words). But I thought I’d share this piece from Australia just to prove the fact that people care about these things well beyond our own shores. And so they should.
However, I confess to feeling in two minds about it. I remember visiting the RI shortly after its infamous refit and feeling distinctly underwhelmed by it. The building’s public thoroughfares seemed to have been turned into a rather low-budget hotel with lots of hard plastic, eating spaces more suited to a Burger King, and over-priced food. It all smacked of mission drift.
Yet two other visits shortly after this reassured me that it hadn’t completely lost the plot – the first a debate with the Science Minister, David Willetts, during the spending review. And then, with my children, to one of their Saturday morning hands-on science fairs – great fun! They loved it. And the staff were brilliant. There is no doubt that the RI is at its best when bringing people together.
In my opinion, the RI’s past experience is a telling reminder if ever we needed one that institutions can all too easily become over-obsessed with rather costly and grandiose statements of their value and worth. To the detriment of a more considered plan for how they use their privileged position and space to cultivate national interest and debate which reflects how society has changed and is changing around them. A world that is less and less about bricks and mortar that’s for sure.
I would put the Royal Society’s Chicheley Hall in the same camp I am afraid. It was acquired with great fanfare during its 2010 celebrations yet I still can’t quite see the connection between its acquisition and serving the public interest. Maybe that’s just a failing on my part. All I would say is that there are many of us who lead research-focused organisations who are quite happy to hire rooms at NCVO or the King’s Fund with no detriment to the events or debates we have there as far as I can tell, and at a far lower cost.
I’m all for a fundraising drive to save Albermarle St as long as the deeper questions about its future mission are also addressed. For me The ‘R’ in its name should stand for ‘Relevance’ as much as ‘Royal’ and certainly not for a sense of misplaced ‘Romanticism’ or, worse still, protecting its ‘Real-Estate.’
I wish it well.
It would seem we are one step closer to ‘open access scientific publishing.’ How big or small that step will be, we do not know yet.
Yesterday we saw a classic bit of Ministerial sounding out of the community on one or two emerging ideas, when the Science Minister, David Willetts, spoke to the Publishers Association . If the ideas had been very radical I suspect Government would have gone that other classic route of getting someone else to float them.
The voices of academia have so far been dominant in the reaction to the speech. So one of my reasons for posting it here is in the hope of giving it a little further reach, to encourage my colleagues in patient and public involvement to give the potential changes in scientific publishing the serious consideration they deserve. Opportunities lie with the way the wind is blowing.
Four things occurred to me when I read the speech this afternoon.
First, the Pubishers Association’s offer of putting journals into public libraries just seems a bit of a cheap trick. After all, unless I am wrong, many public libraries are closing aren’t they?
Second, I still don’t think that academia or indeed Government quite ‘get’ the web or social media. All this talk of ‘harnessing’ it reminds me of the days when PR people used to try and convince everyone that they could ‘control’ the media. Isn’t the whole point about it – the thing that makes it exciting – is that no one gets it and that the person in the street is evolving it just as much as a corporate might aspire too.
Third, I’m still not convinced that those proposing the solutions are quite living the ‘public interest’ dream in the way that they would like us to think. Most of the benefits as they see them, are articulated in terms of data-mining, further academic research etc. Although some elements such as this hold promise:
To enable greater public access to Research Council-funded research information and simplify networking between researchers and SMEs, the Councils are now investing £2 million in the development of a UK “Gateway to Research” portal. Set to open next year, the gateway will enable users to establish who has received funding and for what research. It will provide direct links to actual research outputs such as data sets and publications. They are already working to ensure information is presented in a readily reusable form, using common formats and open standards. I am delighted that Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia will be advising us on these common standards and helping to make sure that the new government-funded portal for accessing research really promotes collaboration.
Fourth, while I understand the Minister’s skittishness over ‘Trip Advisor,’ the fact is that as science begins to operate in an ‘open access’ environment it is going to have to live with this sort of scrutiny and opinion. Indeed, with the sudden explosion in what is available – not unlike the Bank of England printing more money, the need for good public engagement to help translate and interpret it, is going to be greater than ever. How we make that happen is the next big question.
Indeed, would it really be that harmful to science and society, to have Oprah or Richard and Judy picking their best research paper of the week? Or people going onto the ‘Petri Dish’ website to comment on the research that resonated with them most? Perhaps even click the ‘Like’ button.
The Science Minister, David Willetts, blogs in today’s Guardian about the challenges for science writing in a world increasingly dominated by online media .
He richly articulates the terms of an interesting debate and seems to convey genuine interest in the subject and a sincere wish to hear views.
We must give the Online Media Group for Science initiative the chance it deserves not least because those who are members have respected voices in this sphere.
But three things.
First, there is much out there already which is energising and captivating which could simply be trawler rather than submitted – online and social media entries to AMRC’s excellent science communication awards for instance.
Second, it is a shame that having identified key aspects of the debate we are asked to channel our efforts into one specific component – namely outputs. As Willetts says himself there is so much more to the questions in this area than how we push information out.
Third and last, while money is tight, it seems a shame that participation in such initiatives can not be incentivised in some way. For a few dollars more….
CEO, Ovarian Cancer Action
A major speech by Science Minister, David Willetts, about science and not a word about ‘Science and Society’ or the importance of the public.
I am pleased that the Minister recognises the importance of ensuring science articles are in the public domain and not behind a pay wall but it’s curious there seems no public involvement in the inquiry being led by Dame Janet Finch.
This from The Guardian /Observer stable in the early hours of Sunday with a quote from the Science Minister, David Willetts MP.
The article says the centre is likely to be located in the South East (Sandwich perhaps where Pfizer recently closed it’s facility?). £30 million of funding from a mix of public and private sources.
The news follows a recent consultation and review of regenerative science by the UK Government.
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.
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.
I feel I must dedicate this blog to the gentleman who posted an online comment in response to my letter in The Times yesterday, saying it caused him ‘metaphor indigestion.’ I could almost hear the indefatigable voice of my English teacher, the late Brian Mitchell, behind every word.*
So….like the Red Arrows at one of their seaside displays in summer, science and the Government broke formation last week and hurtled towards eachother in a low pass over the crowded beach of onlookers. It was not quite a collision but it caused enough downdraft to make us all lose balance. For a moment only one hopes.
In terms of the ongoing debate, Brian Cox is interviewed by The Sun today (I never thought I’d link to that paper), rumours continue to abound and some have drawn a distinction between the cyber-activisim it has spurred and the more sedate approach of others. It was ever thus with campaigns. The most important thing must be that this doesn’t disintegrate into a fight among ourselves rather than a debate with government. I know my members’ energies are focused on how to encourage Ministers to be brave enough to believe that science can help them achieve a barrell roll through the recession and recover in a steep climb upwards.
At some point we all need to be flying in formation again. Pigs might fly, I hear you say, but I have very good evidence that pink t-shirts can.
Strange and as incredible as it may seem I wish that I was in Birmingham this week. To attend the British Science Festival of course which started today. Unfortunately their website feels a bit ‘static’ and the conference blog is non too prolific as yet but it is early days I suppose. My hot tip for festival organisers is stick to one site through the years but what do I know….I would still like to go to Birmingham.
Anyway, some of you may have seen that BBC Online have been running the following piece about Lord Sainsbury’s speech there today. In essence he has called on scientists to enter into a more public debate about science. He also refutes the usual knee-jerk accusations that the public don’t understand risk and need to ‘be ‘educated’ or made ‘scientifically literate’ (I’d rather prioritise ensuring people have basic standards of literacy and numeracy first if I was honest as I’m sure my Times critic would).
Suffice to say that Lord Sainsbury has made me feel better about my comment at a David Willetts roundtable last month on the need for the UK to be more radical and strategic in our approach to public engagement on science. For example, this from China. My sense from the aforementioned meeting is that the Minister would like to return to the subject in due course so I hope some good ideas come out of Birmingham while at the same time not forgetting the job is simple at heart – it is about separating fact from fiction as my colleagues who dealt with the Vitamin B story last week will tell you.
And finally, just to mention that tomorrow or Thursday we will be publishing our submission to the Academy of Medical Sciences inquiry into the pros and cons of a single regulator for research as well as announcing 3 new member charities. It’s enough to cause you indigestion just in anticipation isn’t it.
In the meantime, I’m off to join my 121..sorry 124…members flying in formation.
*Apparently it’s the thing to do name your favourite teacher at school as though other people should know them. A little like going on holiday to America and everyone asking if you know Mr/s x.
Global warming was not high on the Victorians’ agenda as anyone who attends a summer event in parliament will attest. But the heat is usually a good sign that your event is packed and the conversation flowing. So it was with yesterday’s excellent All-Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Research summer reception.
The show of strength at the event – which brought together medical research charities, funders, the university sector, other science organisations, MPs and Peers including two Ministers (David Willetts and Lord Howe) – felt well-timed given the summer recess in a few days time and the hard negotiations over the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in a time of economic drought.
I was especially delighted that the research showcased in the room and accompanying event programme had clearly struck a chord with the Science Minister, David Willetts. In his speech he highlighted that this was just the sort of evidence the Government was looking for and that he was minded to send a copy to HM Treasury. They, and you, can find it here! And shortly we will post photos from the event on AMRC’s website.
It seems as if the world is besotted right now with the gathering of evidence about research and its economic and social return; the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is imploring the community for economic analyses, examples, case studies and vignettes. And it seems the same is true for other sectors in contact with other Departments. Out of such trends, industries are created.
In this hive of activity, not a few of my colleagues have wondered aloud: ‘What are all those economists in the Treasury and across Government doing if they are so dependent on us for the data?’ A good question. Answers on a postcard please, or better still there is perhaps a lightbulb joke in the making.
Although we will learn the results of this exercise on 20th October it does all feel a little Kafkaesque. Who knows, in twenty years time we may well find ourselves opening a locked door marked ‘Science Settlement 2010′ leading to an underground vault in HM Treasury. It will reveal masses of CSR submissions along one wall, copious evidence of impact (some of it undisturbed) against another, and a few untidy, intriguing but essentially meaningless civil service notes on a low-down shelf against the third. But we wouldn’t really be any the wiser for the revelations.
For the fact is, we can never be sure how it all adds up in the end.
(My next blog will be one continuous sentence lasting over a page)