On his deathbed in November 1986 Harold Macmillan remarked ruefully on the fact that unemployment was 28% in his old parliamentary seat of Stockton-on-Tees and 29% sixty-three years before, when he was its MP. ‘It’s a rather sad end to one’s life,’ he said.
There seems to be a similar bleakness to the tone and style of some of the commentary about the current state of play in UK science. Forget the euphoria of the spending review settlement last year. Forget also the unseasonably mild autumn we are having with its key indicators of UK leadership in science as published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (see here for a good overview). A hoare frost of higher than expected inflation has set in making it sometimes feel painful to breathe.
With that in mind, I think this month could be a more important one than any other we have seen in the Coalition Government’s approach to science, certainly with regard to the life sciences anyway.
The question that remains unanswered from the spending review is how Ministers now intend to set things up for growth, our life sciences sector being no exception. Indeed, one of the consistent criticisms from the community has been the lack of a long-term plan equivalent to the 10-year framework that existed under a Labour Government. Some of the initiatives that we have seen so far such as the NIHR translational partnerships are wonderful but they feel tactical and rather strategic without a narrative of how they all fit with the other bits.
This month’s anticipated unveiling of a ‘life sciences’ package by the Government and of other ‘growth’ measures in the autumn statement on 29th November make one hopeful that we may see an answer to the ‘growth’ question. That the Cabinet Office is supposedly showing a keen interest and involvement in putting these together is a promising sign that the message conveyed ayear ago that No 10 and HM Treasury not only gets the economic and social return argument about research but is willing to follow-through on it.
Nonetheless I’m still going to invest in some winter mufflers just in case.