Science at the Conservative Party Conference – it ain't over until it's over

‘So we will give priority to spending that supports growth in our economy. That means investment in the transport schemes, the medical research and the communications networks that deliver the greatest economic benefit.’ George Osborne, 4 October 2010

Welcome, good, important? Yes.

Victory, game over? Of course not.

A noticeable frisson went through the room when we heard through iPhones, Blackberries, other assorted gadgetry and plain old word-of-mouth that Osborne had made the above statement in his conference speech today.

Chancellors of the Exchequer, as all ministers, make conference speeches that are highly crafted over many weeks with each statement and word poured over.  There is rarely anything that is off-the-cuff. Everything is deliberate. So Osborne will have chosen to make a clear reference to medical research perhaps in response to the lobby, perhaps because of its popular appeal.

So, yes, it is an important statement of intent and it gives reason to be optimistic. But it is not reason enough to stop campaigning hard for the best possible settlement for science. Why?

To begin with there is a degree to which Osborne is merely confirming what has been highly conjectured already. We already know that the health budget including the health research budget held by NIHR is being afforded a level of protection under the CSR as the government has stated many times.

If he is signalling that this protection now includes what the MRC also spends then that would be significant.  But we don’t know and won’t know of course until the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement is announced on 20th October 2010. One of the problems with ministerial speeches to conference – as opposed to in their normal day-to-day duties as a minister – is that there are plenty of advisers to explain the political interpretation that is desired but no officials involved to help explain what they mean in practice.

He did, it is true, talk up innovation using Birmingham as an example of a city of invention:

‘Here in this city of innovation let us find the inspiration to turn today’s Britain into an ideas factory for the world. Innovative, ingenious and open for business. For the hard economic choices we make are but a means to an end. And that end is prosperity for all.’

But this is science speak in the loosest terms and he could have chosen to say so much more if he had wanted.

I continue to feel that we are hearing a clearer, more certain articulation of aspirations on medical and health research in Osborne’s speech today and in other coalition government statements (see my blog yesterday about Earl Howe speaking at Sunday night’s fringe) than we are on the broader science budget.

So that is why when someone asked me after Osborne’s speech what we do now, I said it is very simple: ‘We continue to press hard.’ And that means persuading government to to invest strongly in the science base, the platform from which successes in medical and health research ultimately stem. Pledges on medical and health research will not amount to as much as the government would like to believe without this commitment to what underpins it as well.

The ‘Science is Vital’ campaign petition is creeping up to 13000 so please keep signing.  Plus there’s a rather lovely guest blog by Jenny Rohn (whose idea it initially was) on Martin Robbins Guardian blog.  It is well worth a read.

Congratulations of course to IVF pioneer Bob Edwards for being awarded the Nobel Prize today some 30+ years after the first IVF baby was born. I wonder if it counts as evidence of impact by the government’s definition?

Report on ‘Research to the rescue’ fringe tomorrow morning!

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