‘Best left alone’ is not the motto we want for our health regulators

It being half-term you can never have enough travel games on hand.

Current favourites for me are: a) guessing who will be the new Director of the Wellcome Trust and; b) thinking of  a name for the body  created if you merged all the current Research Councils into one.

I did apply for the former post since you are asking.  I am very hopeful that my double-whammy pitch of making 75% of the Wellcome Trust Governors members of the public or patients (all of whom will be paid a very reasonable INVOLVE rate of £150 a day), and of building a ‘Crick’ in every town in the UK so that everybody has a ‘Crick in their neck of the woods,’ will get me the job.  In the meantime Ted Bianco (no relation to Matt as far as I know) will be Acting Director from March.

As for that merged body, the leading name is ‘Best Left Alone,’ on the basis that all future Science Ministers with not a clue, will find this a reassuringly named out-tray in which to put offending papers for ‘those experts to deal with.’  Not only that but, given the organisation will be based in Swindon, to most Ministers that’s as good as putting it at the end of an unmarked exit on the M4.  And, at the very worst they can quite quite truthfully report to parliament that all Government funding for the science councils has gone down a BLACK hole.

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If I don’t get to see any of these visions come true then I shall turn my attention again to saving the Royal Institution (RI)  as I did just a few weeks ago.  I see the Chair of the RI Board of Trustees, Sir Richard Sykes, wrote a blog in The Guardian on 8th February with this rather curious paragraph in it:

Those present at the meeting agreed to join a Future Direction Committee, tasked by the trustees of the RI to put forward their recommendations for this new vision. Chaired by Robert Winston, this committee is determined to come up with a vision that is shaped in consultation with the wider community, including the RI membership. In my opinion, this is our opportunity to create a national strategy for science communication, advocacy and public engagement if we want Britain to be the best place in the world to do science.

Note the rather telling reference to ‘wider community’ in terms of the RI membership and begrudgingly at that don’t you think?  Sort of counts you and me out then doesn’t it?  This is all very odd given the RI campaign message is, and I paraphrase, ‘save it for the nation.’  Er, would that be the same nation, that falls outside of the wider community?  Fingers crossed they show enough trust in the nation on whose behalf they act to ask us for some ideas on what could be done with Albermarle Street.  No, no, I promise to be constructive in a concreting-over sort of way (that’s a joke, promise).

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Deep down, you see – and I feel this ties all the above  together – is that I think many people in science would prefer a ‘best left alone’ way of working, it’s a sort of undercurrent behind lots of the things they say or do even when they are imploring people to help them out of monumental cock-ups from the past. This is only human nature I suppose.  But pity the poor underpaid communications teams in these organisations who have to manage such tensions on a daily basis.  Talking of which….

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There was a ‘best left alone’ essence to the broadside that Lords Willis, Patel and Winston fired at medical regulators in yesterday’s The Sunday Times (behind the pay-wall).   Lord Winston also did an interview on ‘The Today’ programme this morning which you may have heard.  The three highly-respected peers wrote that: medical regulation is slowing down science; there ought to be one regulator rather than the four we currently have and; we are wasting lots of money on multiple CEOs and communications people in these organisations, money which could be better spent on medical research.

What was weird about the letter – aside from the fact that it didn’t have any other backers even from organisations that the Peers are closely allied too – was that it read like a long-forgotten missive that had then been rediscovered and mistakenly posted without review.  The fact is, we are in the midst of significant regulatory reform in health research, the merger argument is not seriously on anyone’s agenda right now (even if, like me,you are sympathetic to it), and the line that burning quangos saves money just isn’t supported by the evidence.  It was all a bit of a surprise to me and others who thought we were beginning to reach a new regulatory settlement that was in everyone’s interests.

Then there was that stuff in the letter about salaries.  The easiest and cheapest shot to take at bureaucracy is always the one about overpaid staff.  It’s also the most difficult one to fend off.  But I can’t let it pass.  For while sometimes the criticism is justified and the question should always be asked about how our taxes are spent.  On the other hand, I could just as well be asking our research funders: can you prove beyond all reasonable doubt that every pound of the money you receive from taxpayers or donors is spent on medical research that meets patients needs and is not being wasted?  I’ve yet to see any funder be able do that I’m afraid.  And until they can, the wastage argument cuts both ways.  So, stones and glass houses and all that.

You know,  every story this last week – from the NHS to our food chain – points to the difficulties of regulating increasingly complex systems against a backdrop of constant change and with inherent challenges in terms of leadership, accountability and equity.

Medical research is no different.  Indeed, we have mountains to climb before we can say, hand-on-heart, that we have the sort of regulatory system for health research that patients and the public will expect in the future.  That’s where our efforts should be spent and we should leave no stone unturned in trying to achieve it, however much it might rile researchers and funders.  One day they might actually count their blessings that we didn’t leave them alone.

One thought on “‘Best left alone’ is not the motto we want for our health regulators

  1. […] The key message from the committee is that the HRA should be ‘promoting’ research.  I am sure this is right. But the very real problem for the HRA is how do you define this in practice?  For the answer is potentially as long as a piece of string.  There is certainly a real danger for mission drift if it’s not careful. There is also some irony in the fact that it was onlya few short weeks ago that three eminent Peers wrote to The Times criticising the HRA and other regulators for the amount of money spent on media and communications. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t (see my blog on this from just a few weeks ago). […]

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