Science at the Conservative Party Conference – avoiding the herd mentality

I read in the Birmingham local press that about 14,000 people are expected at the Conservative Party Conference.  It certainly seems busier than the preceding two, even on a Sunday evening. 

Each conference has its own feel but common to them all is the herd of grey-suited buffalo (including myself I suppose) that migrates from one to the other.  Others have commented on the fact that there seems to be a distinct lack of diversity at all the conferences – in terms of people and topics of debate – which is perhaps a worrying sign of where politics has got too.  The result is a rather banal preoccupation with sibling rivalries and holes in socks rather than the real issues. 

However, this evening’s Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and ABHI fringe was perhaps the most successful of all the three I have chaired over the last few weeks.  Absorbing and really quite distressing stories from family carers Amy (whose daughter Eva had a stem cell transplant for leukaemia) and Alice (who cared for both her husband and mother-in-law during the marathon that is dementia) started off the meeting.

It was excellent to have Earl Howe on the stand too.  Earl Howe is the Minister responsible for medical and health research in the Department of Health.  He seemed in receptive mood and was keen to talk to delegates afterwards (rather than rush off which is what so many politicians seem or have to do these days).

Issues covered included the national dementia strategy.  Earl Howe said the Coalition Government was strongly committed to the policy – indeed he reminded us that it was an explicit part of the Coalition Government joint statement – but that it would be updated with the aim of going further, faster.  Rebecca Wood from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust urged him to consider the delivery aspects of this plan given the wider changes afoot in the NHS.

Earl Howe seemed rightly concerned about the poor funding in other areas such as mental health and conditions where thre is low morbidity but where the impact on quality of life is significant such as hearing impairment.  He asked whether some of this was due to the poor quality of research proposals being put forward and said he was interested in understanding better the underlying causes.  He also asked for more information about the government-funded cord blood banks held in the USA and Spain – the lack of an equivalent approach in the UK means umbilical cords have to be imported from abroad for potential recipients.

I was struck by the comment Alice made in her talk about having to search for information about clinical trials herself rather than hearing about them from her GP or clinicians.  GPs in the audience bristled and rightly voiced the difficulties they are under but I got a sense from Earl Howe that they are on the case of ensuring doctors are incentivised to be research active. This has to be right.

There was much talk of regulation and regulatory hurdles to research.  Earl Howe said ‘we want to remove the barriers to research’ and talked about the importance of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ review of regulation: ‘When we get it we will look very carefully at the legislation and bring forward plans for radical simplification.’ 

He also referred to the North West Exemplar which is a programme aimed at speeding-up the start-up times of clinical trials, saying that the Department would be evaluating the results from this in due course.  I think Ministers have really got their teeth into this agenda but then it is natural territory for Conservatives.

I thought there was quite a strong distinction Earl Howe made between the UK’s strong performance in basic science compared to that in clinical and translational research – he said our record in the latter was poorer and that much ‘work needs to be done.’  Again, referencing regulation, he described a clinical trial which was supposed to be run in England and the Netherlands but where the Dutch element was ready to report its results before the UK part had even started.

He was careful not to be drawn into the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) other than to rehearse the statements about the protection of the health budget.  He said the community was ‘rightly anxious’ about the wider science budget held by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

I hope that our meeting avoided the herd mentality, it certainly felt like a good discussion from the top table.

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