It felt as if my summer started early this year. Two weeks ago in fact. With a short trip to Harpenden in Hertfordshire. Muggy sunshine mixed with heavy, sheet-metal-like rain showers as I took the train ride north of London. It felt good to be leaving the city for a change.
The reason for my trip was to meet with William Davies, the new Chief Executive at the Ataxia-Telangiectasia Society.
Whenever a new Chief Executive takes over at one of our member charities I like to meet with them. It is an opportunity to learn more about their priorities and how AMRC can help. Invariably I come away excited about what the sector is doing and the people doing it. My Harpenden visit was no exception. Nor was our recent ‘Introduction to AMRC’ workshop for non-member charities and new staff working for current AMRC members. This took place two weeks ago – twenty or so charities and individuals at different points in their respective journeys.
Back to the A-T Society. Ataxia-Telangiectasia (“A-T”) is a rare, neurodegenerative and progressive condition which starts in early childhood causing severe disability and premature death. It affects many parts of the body robbing the child of his/her independence. A wheelchair is needed usually by the age of ten.
The Society is not untypical of a smaller medical research charity in taking root where its founders live and work, in funding tens rather than hundred of thousands of pounds of research and in having a wider remit to support, in this case, children and families. Some of these charities will become the household names of tomorrow (we sometimes forget that organisations like the Alzheimer’s Society literally began with a meeting of carers and doctors in someone’s home over thirty years ago). And if you had sat with me in William’s office listening to the history of the charity, its challenges, but also its ambitions for the future, I would have challenged you not to have emerged with a very real view of why science matters at the end of the day .
The co-founder of another non-member charity was in our offices today. I hope that, before long, they will become a member too. With no staff and only the assistance of willing supporters and the scientific community, they have gone from small beginnings to building a viable system of peer review, funding £10,000s of research and establishing a global network of families. Above all, they want to be seen to be ‘good stewards’ of the donations for research they receive. Hence their interest in us.
These episodes also reminded me of an exchange at the Science Media Centre recession press conference that AMRC did two years ago. Asked by a journalist what would be lost if charity fundraising was badly hit, Phil Butcher the then CEO of Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, answered simply and directly: ‘less new ideas being funded and less opportunities to explore others.’ I noticed that it is a similar point made from a different angle and in a different context (public expenditure cuts) on the Royal Society’s new blog today by Jessica Bland. Charities like their academic and industry partners need a strong infrastructure on which to build and prosper and fund excellent science.
Back in London the view from my office window is dominated by a large birch tree. Its huge boughs reach skywards. Every year, smaller branches grow stronger and new shoots appear beneath and around this strong frame. All depend on the sturdiest of trunks to support a rich and vibrant canopy. And so it is with research. In the understandable desire to save money we should not also forget some of the historical precedents in other sectors (the Beeching Axe being the obvious one given the title of my post although apologies fro mixing metaphors) that neither achieved their aims in savings and were arguably counter-productive from both a social and economic standpoint.
Anyway, to return to my original theme, it’s good to get out now and again.