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.