Lit runways and other language pitfalls – or should we say ‘crash landings’ – in science.

I went to a listening event hosted by the new Life Sciences Minister, George Freeman, yesterday. It was rather good. One of the better ones I have attended over the years. So well done him. And well done those who ran it.

During the course of the event, I came across a new term – ‘lit runways.’ Well, new to me. It was being used in the context of trying to speed up access to medicines for patients by shortening the development time. The idea being that if you can see the runway lights you can land safely and soundly without delay.

Now I’m not one to knock a good metaphor. After all I seem to remember once being lambasted by a Daily Telegraph reader for the number of metaphors I used in a letter to which he was responding in print.

And all Governments have new ways they wish to articulate their policy ideas. David Willetts had ‘clusters’ for breakfast. I seem to remember Lord Drayson ‘catapulting’ faster than one of his racing cars.

But yesterday afternoon I did begin to wonder.

For as soon as I heard the words ‘lit runway’ I recalled a story in which an airline pilot was severely reprimanded by his airline (he may, in fact, have been sacked) for mistaking the M4 as Runway 27R at London Heathrow Airport.

Luckily he realised the error of his ways before his wheels struck the roof of the Queen’s car taking her back to Windsor (I made that bit up). Perhaps he knew something we don’t about runway expansion in the South East of England.

The point is that it’s all very well landing on a lit runway…as long as it’s the right runway.

So, listening to the absorbing debate among colleagues I was encouraged by the number of times people talked about ’empowered’ patients being fundamental to the future success of UK research and success.

I couldn’t have put it better. But if they really mean it then it means accepting that patients and the public must be part of the construction crew that builds the runway.

If not, we will simply building runways to destinations not of patients’ choosing. And no one wants to land there.

Night night.

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