'Health research cuts'

Today’s ‘exclusive’ in the The Times online headlined ‘Cancer research at risk in scramble for care funds’ has caused understandable concern and outrage. 

It is an interesting piece based on comments made to The Times by the Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham MP.  But some background may help us get a better perspective on the story. 

The fact that the Department of Health’s ‘non-urgent research’ is to be raided to pay for the Government’s new pledge on free personal care is not new news and certainly not an exclusive of course.  It was included in the briefings made to journalists at the time of the Prime Minister’s announcement about free care at the Labour Party Conference in October. 

When AMRC approached the Department for clarification at the time we got a strong message back that it was  ‘business as usual’ for the core R&D budget held by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).  Even now, I am not sure that Andy Burnham’s only so slightly clearer definition of where the cuts will fall is as menacing as The Times makes out.  Both dementia and cancer are areas where the Government has talked-up its commitment since the party conferences.  So it would be strange for it suddenly to hit reverse gear.  Remember, the article is careful to say ‘could,’ ‘might’ etc. 

Indeed as I wrote this blog I noticed the following breaking news running on the Press Association wires which includes a categorical and welcome rebuttal by the Department of Health of any implication that research into cancer and dementia will be cut.  It is hard to keep up.

Burnham promises more detail when he introduces the personal care legislation into parliament and we should not be complacent – I thought Cancer Research UK’s comment in The Times was spot on. But for me the real menace lies not in this story but in what a new Government will do following the General Election.  Cuts there will surely be, to all areas of policy and we need to think through how we tackle this agenda in a way which avoids us appearing to shout ‘cry wolf’ every time there is a hint of a cut, or worse still inadvertently setting off forest fires that distract attention away from the sort of disinvestment that really does undermine our science base.

The story also highlights one thing we all need to be stressing to current and forthcoming Ministers, MPs and civil servants – that lack of clarity, a lack of transparency and a lack of discussion about such issues is more than likely to cause a proverbial run on the pound – not helpful either to those that Government wants to work or conducive to the task of governing in difficult times.  

I know that elsewhere in the charity sector efforts are being made to persuade Government to engage more openly on the sorts of principles it should be following when deciding which public services to prioritise.  We should be striving to do the same for research.

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