The 2011 medical research charity in-flight dashboard

Let me be the last to convey my New Year message to the nation! 

During my period of annual leave – which is still ongoing I might add but I care about you all that much – I have been thinking about how AMRC’s member charities are faring and feeling as we begin 2011.  

Mis-spent days and now distant days as a private pilot  made me think of the dashboard of essential instruments pilots use to fly in good weather and bad (no, not the horrible ones that management consultants use).  They are the altimeter, artificial horizon, turn co-ordinator, air-speed indicator, vertical speed indicator and compass. 

What would these look like for the sector today? 

Height is a useful commodity in aviation.  Not just for the view.  But because you have a better sense of the horizon, fuel useage is more economical and, frankly, if anything happens you have more time to do something about it.  Our altimeter shows our height and I would say that, collectively, research charities have done well to maintain their height during 2010.  Not quite ‘flying high’ or at cruise level but high and stable enough to allow drinks and meals to be served. That should give us all confidence.

Our artificial horizon shows our attitude relative to the horizon and ideally we’d like to be pitched just above it.  There were moments last year when it felt that we were dipping below the horizon like the rest of science such was the uncertainty and sense of despondency.  But we do now seem to be edging slowly above it again.  The apprehensions remain the same but the air seems somewhat less turbulent. 

Our airspeed indicator and vertical speed indicator show how fast we are going and our rate of climb.  Perhaps we can use this as a metaphor for the sector’s growth which was impressive in 2009-2010 whichever way you looked at it.  Just to remind you charities spent £1.1 billion on research that year compared to just over £900 million the year before.  But I’d be surprised if we put on quite the same performance this year.  Growth might well be slower. 

But the good news relative to what’s happening in other parts of the charity sector is that, as the NCVO/CAF ‘UK Giving 2010’ Report showed last month, medical research tops the causes to which the British public give money too.  And we ain’t going anywhere without fuel.  A nice steady climb is perhaps more comfortable for our passengers anyway.

Our turn indicator shows which way we are turning and how steeply.  It’s an interesting one this.  It was all over the dial in 2010 as we navigated around various storms and coped with a strong cross (or should I say coalition) wind.  It risked blowing us and many others way off course and putting us into a pretty unedifying roll.  But we seem to be straight and level again with a little bit of ‘wing wobble.’  For now. More importantly we are now pointing into that coalition-wind and not being pushed along by it. The result: we are at least holding onto our course althought it is taking a lot of effort and concentration.

And finally, our compass shows where we are heading relative to true North.  Thankfully we no longer seem to be flying into a setting sun but it is too early to say whether we are turning back towards one that is rising. 

Indeed there’s a long way to go.  And we are, for all intents and purposes, in a break in the clouds.  The weather ahead includes the Academy of Medical Sciences report on regulation, the announcement on the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF), NHS reform and changes to higher education funding.  Hopefully some of these will prove to be further breaks in the cloud but some will undoubtedly mean further stormy conditions and it will be AMRC’s job to help ensure safe flight for our members by being the air traffic controller that guides them safely to their destination.

There’s a pilot’s mantra which holds well for the current scenario and our priorities: aviate first, navigate second, and then communicate.   And another saying that I am rather fond of to this day: ‘There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots.’


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