Political spotlight on Health Research Authority (HRA) intensifies

I am sure the new Health Research Authority (HRA) can take care of itself.  But the expectations being heaped on it by others show no signs of abating. I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow someone calls on it to cure cancer. If it had been created by a Blair Government it would surely have been dubbed ‘The People’s Health Research Authority.’ Come to think of it…..

Why do I say this?  Well, the committee of MPs and Peers looking at the draft Care and Support Bill establishing the HRA has just published its report; the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) has provided an excellent overview of their conclusions here .

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).

Did anyone else also raise an eyebrow at the conclusion parliamentarians drew that there is ‘no single body promoting health and social care research?’ Er, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) perhaps? For one.  It feels that the Committee has assumed the body language of funders and researchers when it comes to this thing called ‘promotion:’  quite simply they are good at promoting their own science but when it comes to promoting science in general it is rapidly becomes someone else’s responsibility. And often the responsibility of organisations that are already running on vapour in terms of resources.

Yet it is evident from the conversations I have had with colleagues thus far that generally they have been encouraged by the quietly efficient and logical way that the HRA is going about its business.  It’s approach to public involvement seems sensible given the lack of precedence for where it wants to head.  Its stakeholder event a few weeks ago was, by all accounts, excellent.  It is steaming ahead with its pilot of speeding up approvals.  These are all good things and it is important that we support their endeavour in the coming weeks and months if it is to become the fair but robust regulator we all wish to see.

Across the Committee corridor the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has just  published all the written submissions it has received as part of its inquiry into clinical trials.  Some of these submissions are filtering into the press.  And this evening I noticed this piece from Outsourcing Pharma.Com about the evidence of the Clinical Contract Research Association (CCRA).  It again puts the onus on the HRA pulling things together. (By the way, I was just as interested in CCRA’s call  to simplify consent and other complex processes which stand in the way of patients taking part  in trials).

As it takes oral evidence, Committee  members will focus in even greater forensic detail on the role of the HRA in promoting transparency in the registering and reporting of clinical trials.  The Care and Support Bill Committee took a strong line on this and says HRA must lead the way.  I would agree 100% with them.  But HRA can only do this if it has strong political backing from the beginning and when it is having to face down the recalcitrant funder or researcher who won’t play ball.  All on the basis that it is just ‘red tape’ preventing them from doing their life-saving work.  For it is at those moments that the wind is often taken out of the regulator’s sails by a lack of courage of the part of our politicians.

So how the Committee chooses to deal with this particular issue is going to have an important bearing on the future workload of the HRA and how it is monitored in parliament.  In the meantime, the Care and Support Bill will establish its formal role.

Yep. There’s no doubt about it. All eyes are on the HRA and this is just the beginning….

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