Cable reveals his basic instincts on science

Well, I think we can safely say that Vince Cable put the cat amongst the pigeons this morning.  Doesn’t matter that we all knew the cat was coming, the reaction has been instinctive.  And there has been some uncharacteristically unacademic language in response to his blunt message.

In fact that is the first thing that struck me about his speech when I read it.  It is uncoded and almost raw in its language.  I have no doubt it was also direct in the manner in which it was delivered given what we know about the Business Secretary from his profile as a politician.  

It is also surprisingly uninclusive as a text.  Only in the last paragraph is there a strong message about wanting to work together with the community.  I make no apologies if my quote of earlier in the day seems parochial.  When you have a sector as strong as ours delivering £1 billion of money to research in the last year, and when a major theme of your speech is collaboration, it seems careless to not mention one of the major partners and, in many cases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke (I could go on), the principal funder.

His section on collaboration would have held greater water for me if it hadn’t been pre-empted by The Times piece this morning.  This reported on scenario planning within the Medical Research Council (MRC) including pulling away from major programmes in cancer and other areas if it was required to make cuts of 35% or more.  Vince Cable denied the cuts would be anywhere near this on The Today programme.  But it is not clear if he was refuting the possibility of an average cut of that size across the board or cuts of as much as that in particular areas.  You can beat expectations of the former while at the same time exceding those of the latter.

The more worrying implication behind The Times story is that an assumption is creeping into Ministerial thinking that other funders can take up the slack if they withdraw Government support.  How little they have listened over the last few months about how research works if that is the case?  And if that really is the thinking then Vince Cable’s collaboration strategy will unravel irrecoverably and quickly.  As Harpal Kumar (CEO of Cancer Research UK), John Bell (President of the Academy of Medical Sciences) have both said, these are collaborations are only possible if all the partners who can make it happen are in the room.  

Nor do I take any solace from the suggestion that Government would nstead maintain its support in those areas where it doesn’t believe there is other funding available.  Mental health and neurology are the ones quoted.  After all, the Government’s track record in both is not good, as my members in these areas will tell you.

Yesterday I said the sector hoped to get some sense of the Coalition Government’s long-term strategy for science this morning.  There was a better articulation of some of what it sees as the key planks of this strategy (such as the section on ‘excellence’).  But frankly this speech was more about positioning the sector  for the next three years than setting out the position the Government wants to be in after that period, and from which it hopes to push on to develop a strong economy.   That is an important difference.  I understand there will be a growth white paper in the autumn so we should learn more then.

Having read Vince Cable’s speech a couple of times now I can’t help sense that there is much more happening in terms of Government thinking than the broad messages revealed today.  A sense that it is rewiring how science is funded and delivered but has yet to make all the connections in its own mind.  A sense that it is not content to live with the mindset that has gone before.  

So today was not just about delivering a hard message about cuts but about getting the sector to prepare itself to think differently, however unpalatable this is on first consumption.   To understand that better we may have to look to the more basic ‘liberal’ and ;market’ instincts that drive the Coalition Government in the same way that an ‘interventionist’ philosophy drove the previous administration’s thinking. 

That’s a charitable view anyway.

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