I decided not to break off from my painting holiday (well, two weeks of home decorating) to read the new Life Sciences Strategy. After all, how does the saying go about ‘watching paint dry?’
Now I have read it I really don’t know what to make of it. ‘Heavy,’ ‘dense,’ ‘technical’ are the words that immediately spring to mind. As opposed to ‘focussed,’ compelling,’ ‘visionary.’ In fact unless you are wearing the right sort of t-shirt I reckon you won’t ‘get it.’ In the same way that you wouldn’t get a Star Trek convention if you stumbled into one and weren’t a Trekkie. Funnily enough the document has got a cover like the opening frames of a Star Trek movie.
I’m not sure I ‘get it’ that’s for sure. That’s not to say the plan doesn’t have merit. Some of the proposals are sensible and necessary. There’s nothing particularly wrong about the section on clinical research although it seems grudging in its praise of what’s already been achieved. It’s just that the contextual narrative provided is not strong enough to say why its recommendations are important, how they will change things, how they fit together, what the end result will be, why we should care.
Probably more important at this juncture is why Ministers should care. I feel it would have been better to focus on 2 or 3 big ideas or major reforms rather than try and define and mend everything. It reads like a discussion document. Which is what it is. For remember, this is not a Government strategy. It is the basis of a discussion with Government. Good luck with that given there is only one negotiation happening in town…..
Of course, the prevailing view is that this is a strategy written by industry for industry. Which is strange given the lukewarm reception in the trade press. But then I suppose we have come to expect industry to whinge for England (we can argue another day whether it really is ‘for England.’) so what’s new there? It’s probably more accurate to say it is a document written by the elite for the elite. Certainly it feels like that from a distance.
And that’s my biggest problem with the so-called Life Sciences Strategy; the lack of attention to the role of a vast community – researchers, clinicians, health professionals, patients, the public etc. – in making today’s science in the UK world-class and keeping it there. What is in it for us? Because it doesn’t articulate this. It doesn’t say why we should also believe in and care about it. It certainly feel as though the spaceship has been put in reverse gear since the last Life Sciences Strategy and its recognition of the importance of patient pull for instance.
The Life Sciences Strategy reaches desperately for some vision with its promise of ‘moonshot ideas.’ But getting to the moon needed people to make it happen and it was with the intent of landing someone on it. It reminded me of the well-worn story about President John F Kennedy meeting a caretaker during his tour of NASA’s headquarters in 1961. When Kennedy asked him what he was doing, the caretaker replied: ‘Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’
It’s this lack of appreciation that tomorrow’s science will depend less on the heroic few and more on the endeavour of the many that is its most maddening aspect. Ultimately it might result in mission failure.
Or perhaps I am just on another planet.