George Osborne

Yes, wouldn’t it be great if the BBC did indeed launch ‘Science in Need?’ Then, for the first time in history, we could have a public broadcaster encouraging us to ‘SIN’ and be SINNERS with our donation to science.

There is something rather beautiful but perhaps also tendentious about the juxtaposition of yesterday’s launch of the BBC’s new strategy including its plans for science (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-34168310); and the call by almost 200 science leaders in a letter to The Financial Times for Government to back British science strongly in the on-going Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).  Both carry essentially the same message that ‘science is in need.’  Yet one wonders whether Brian Cox’s by-all-accounts excellent speech at the Science Museum as part of the BBC’s launch might have been the right speech in the wrong place. For I am not sure the BBC needs to give the Government any more excuses for thinking it has a political agenda.

What of the BBC’s new pitch on science? Well, what’s not to like about the most esteemed public broadcaster in the world making science such a big part of its future plans (Future of the BBC 2015)? I think it’s great. But… Yes, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming didn’t you?  Fact is, it is good.  But it also grates in parts.

Perhaps it is the cringe-worthy and religious-sounding title for the science bit (Section 6.4) of the strategy: ‘A New Age of Wonder’ invoking us to bow at the altar of science as in a medieval painting.  Or maybe it is the list of hallowed science organisations with which the BBC says is going to link up with to embark on the biggest public engagement campaign in science in history? There are many other organisations – local and national – that need to be part of this partnership if it’s to reflect the national science enterprise that it avows to campaign for.  Not just the ‘great and the good’ of the science institutions.

And a campaign? Does this mean we can expect Soviet-style, four-legs good two legs bad programming? Have we ditched impartiality and putting science under the same scrutiny as every other sector in life’s? Seems a bit dodgy to me to position the BBC as something akin to a propaganda machine. Celebrate, absolutely, but let’s not forget there’s a lot to debate, to question, to challenge about science as well.  As ever, the danger with the approach implied in the BBC’s report is that the  desire to influence and persuade becomes more important than the quality of the dialogue and engagement.

True there is a welcome reference to citizen science. But it could have done with an illustration or two of how it will tap into this movement if it wanted to be more convincing. I, for one, would love to see the BBC empower citizens with its science coverage. Just as it has young writers with its wonderful annual story-writing competition that features on Chris Evans’ Radio 2 Breakfast Show.  This sort of populist but life-enforcing approach must sit alongside that of the other roles the BBC should play.

What did the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, say: ‘inform, educate, entertain.’

How about ’empower’ as well?

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.

George Osborne MP, pictured speaking on the la...

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There is an article in today’s Times Higher Education (THES) about a report from Science is Vital campaign on the current crisis in the career structure for scientists entitled: Careering Out of Control: A Crisis in the UK Science Profession?  You can also read more on the Guardian blog

Looking through a wider lense still, I see that Mark Henderson has written an excellent piece in the latest issue of The Times Eureka magazine about how UK scientists and organisations won the battle with last year’s comprehensive spending review result but not the war.  Not least because, as the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has reported the cuts to science will be much greater than expected not least because of the higher than expected rate of inflation.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said at the Conservative Party Conference as he announced a bunch of tinderstick intiatives in science, that he wants the UK to produce the greatest scientists .  And yesterday the Prime Minister, David Cameron, implored us to believe that we can fight our way out of the current turmoils. 

Yet, with the science funding picture as it is and the Government dogmatically sticking to its mantra  it is difficult to see us fighting our way out of a cardboard box at the moment, let alone create the best and the brightest scientists.

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I found myself deeply moved by the news and growing tributes rightly being paid around the world this morning to Steve Jobs following his death from pancreatic cancer. Whether as innovator, designer or consumer champion he has been a hero to many including myself.

When I got to work I trawled through some of Steve Jobs quotes on the web to remind myself of why and how he was different. These two struck me:

A lot of companies have chosen to downsize, and maybe that was the right thing for them. We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of customers, they would continue to open their wallets.

And this too:

Quality is more important than quantity.  One home run is much better than two doubles.

Tomorrow is Budget day.  Having just finished AMRC’s own budget and business plan for 2011-2012 all I can say is: George you know where I am if you want to crunch some last minute numbers?

The Financial Times is reporting today that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce a £100million cash injection for capital projects to ameliorate the effects on science of cut-backs announced by Pfizer and Novartis since the beginning of the year. 

Since the political message in the last few weeks has been about ‘reform’ I wonder whether we might also see some movement on the research regulation front.  Not a great deal since the word is it will take years rather than months to disassemble the current system before putting in back along the lines suggested by the Academy of Medical Sciences in its report earlier this year.  But something that suggests the Government is committed to speeding up the system and encouraging growth in the sector.  And if they don’t, then it will be a salutory lesson that given a choice between an octopus and myself to make predictions, always go for the octupus. 

Anyway, we shall be posting all the news from the budget here and on Becky’s fantastic policy blog – but visit here first please just so my stats are better than hers.

In other news, you may wish to look at AMRC’s submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into peer review published today.  As I have said many times before, the UK has a good story to tell on the commitment of research charities to using peer review to allocate their research funding.  Other written evidence submitted to the inquiry can be viewed on the committee’s website.

Plus, I should make mention of the final AMRC/UK National Stem Cell Network public engagement meeting – this time in York on 29th March 2011.  The event will feature the screening of the award winning film ‘Indestructible’ which documents the declining health of a young American motor neurone disease sufferer, including his trip to China for a stem cell therapy.  The film will be followed by a question and answer session with a panel of local experts.

Finally, a soft launch of an exciting new project that AMRC, together with the British Library, UKOLN at the University of Bath, Sage Bionetworks and the Digital Curation Centre and funded by JISC, will be undertaking over the next few months to investigate the potential of crowd- sourced “lay summaries”, derived from UK PubMed Central content, to enable the citizen- patient to better understand research.  The project now has its very own blog which will be populated with a great deal more information very, very soon.

As CEO of a membership association I am used to crowd-surfing.  So this is a new one on me and all the more exciting because of it.

UPDATE: You can find the Growth Review document published jointly by HM Treasury and the Department for Businesss here.  A quick skim through its pages suggests a collection of ‘already known’ initiatives with a short section at the back announcing a sector-by-sector consultation on barriers to growth.  From what is in the document, it is not clear how this consultation or discussion is going to be co-ordinated as yet. 

Earlier today I said…

If you have been reading the newspapers today you’ll know that the on/off again growth white paper is now going to emerge this afternoon as a discussion paper.

Seems likely – given what Willetts and others have been saying over the last six months – that there will be a section on life sciences although I might be wrong.  Judging by the press reports the Government is going to ask different sectors to design a blueprint for driving growth in their area.  In terms of the life sciences I would have thought that this is a given-job for the Office for Life Sciences which er …..produced a blueprint about 18 months ago now.  I am not sure what comes after a blueprint.

Will post more about the impending Picassoesque blueprint era of economic planning by the Coalition Government as we know it.

I can only think of turning the last few hours of trying to absorb today’s announcements and figures in the following way:

The good

  • Surely even the harshest critic would have to acknowledge that, comparatively speaking, science fared well in today’s spending review.  It was certainly spared the savage cuts that we are seeing elsewhere and that were long muted. 
  • The fact that the basic components of the funding regime remain intact means continuity and stability – qualities often overlooked or indeed deliberately attacked in politics but crucial to productivity.
  • The ring-fencing of the science budget, not just because of the protection that it affords, but because it helps to ensure transparency and scrutiny of the science budget.
  • The fact that the government has listened and an important argument about the role of science in the economy and society was won with HM Treasury – it by no means seemed that way just a few weeks ago.
  • The commitment to the Medical Research Council (MRC) and maintaining its budget ‘in real terms’ and also to big ticket items like UKCMRI.
  • The strong narrative in support of clinical research generally.
  • The coalescence of many voices in science behind a common aim…as necessary in good times as well as bad

The not so good

  • A 10 % cut in real terms will still be painful.  Even with the sort of efficiency measures recommended by the Wakeham report some surgery is going to be required somewhere. 
  • What this means in terms of our international competitivenes.

..but, as said, it could have been far worse.

The uncertain

  • The first is the pernennial worry for charities about the settlement for the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) under the QR settlement which has yet to be hammered out.  It is a key lever for our involvement and underpins our partnership with universities.  So, plenty of negotiations to be had yet.
  • The second is that charities will undoubtedly come under pressure to fund more research at a time of less resource.    Competition will be fierce.  This will come with its own associated stresses as we tried to point out in our letter to The Times last week.
  • With less news forthcoming about other research councils some have already intimated the need to ensure what happens here does not undermine interdisciplinary research and partnership. 
  • ….and the great unknown is the extent to which the Browne report recommendations re: tuition and teaching will have a knock-on impact on science and future generations of scientists.

What happens next?

I think the coalesced lobby needs to push on now.  The near-term objective must be to make sure the forthcoming growth white paper translates today’s statement of intent by the Coalition Government into a cohesive plan.

In flying one is taught how to use the circle of uncertainty principle when lost: find a fixed landmark and circle until one can identify where one is by reference to your map. 

The run-up to today has felt a little like that. We have had a fixed landmark in the CSR.  Now, at least, we know how much fuel we have on board (even if it is not as much as we would like).  And it looks likely there is a place to land.  Doing so safely and in one piece is the next and perhaps hardest part to deliver.

We are packing up.  No, no, no, not in that sense.  It is just that we are moving office in a few weeks. 

I am ashamed to say that I am the last of our team to begin the task of separating the recently aquired detritus from the must-keep documents that tell something of our history.  But I am already unearthing a few gems.

Yesterday evening I stumbled across the annual ‘handbooks’ that we published in the eighties and nineties.  These guides list our then member charities along with details of the grants and types of project each of them funded (details we now publish online).  All contain a short foreword.  Curiosity made me look at those from the early eighties:

1983 – ‘…there is no doubt that, generally speaking, university research is well-served by the charities.  The funds available not only provide a significant contribution to the overall level of funding, but are very effective in the way they can provide relatively small amounts of funding when and where this is most needed.’

1984: ‘There is widespread concern that research institutions have been weakened considerably during the last few years.  The charities have responded positively to help support and suatain the biomedical research base in the UK.  It will be noted that over 30% of the member charities have disbursed monies in excess of their income during 1983.  This is an exceptional response ata a difficult time.’

1985: ‘….there can now be little doubt that the dual support system of medical research in the UK is very shaky and there would seem to be a shift in government priorities from the public to the voluntary sector in maintaining the research base in our universities and teaching hospitals…Indeed, it would seem that the only growing contribution to medical research in real terms is that provided by the voluntary sector…’

and 1986: ‘ There can be no excuse for Government to give less; rather we would hope that the evident interest and concern of the British communitywould be reflected in a more generous allocation of public funds to the MRC…’

The hardening of their tone matches the parsimonious treatment of science  during Margaret Thatcher’s first and second terms in office.  But how easily they could fit into the discourse of the last few months.

Tomorrow sees the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) announcement.  I suspect it will be a day largely about numbers big and small.  But assessing what it means in practical terms will be more difficult.  Don’t believe what the Government says about CSR being sorted, there’s a whole lot more wheeling and dealing to be done about how the Departments slice up the budgets.  Tomorrow will feel a little like being served a rather burnt creme brulee.  Every sense will tell us how unappetising it is as a dish but we won’t actually know until we have broken through the crust.  And we will need something bigger than a teaspoon to do that.

After tomorrow, and sooner rather than later, we will need to look beyond the numbers and understand the driving philosophy behind them if we are to lead science properly in the coming years.  A number of political commentators have already written that the deficit has been a gift to a Coalition Government intent on radically restructuring government and society.  I suspect that science and technology will not be left out of this and we might get some better idea of the philosphy when the Government publishes its growth paper in the next few months. 

Last night I stumbled across a paper by David Edgerton and Kirsty Hughes, and first published in 1989, entitled ‘ The poverty of science: A critical analysis of scientific and industrial policy under Mrs Thatcher.’   (1) They unpeel and help us understand that administration’s approach to science by making us see the relevance of the wider political contex, what they call a central policy agenda of ‘freeing private enterprise, of reducing intervention and of cuts in public expenditure’ – of re-shaping a slimmed down state to better serve industry.  It is reminiscent of what we are seeing today as Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in The Guardian yesterday

Their criticism of the science lobby at the time is that it failed to understand or challenge this.  They conclude with the line: ‘Flexibility, variety and competition are  needed in studies of science and technology policy, as well as in science itself.’

So, let’s crunch the numbers tomorrow but let us also be wary of painting by numbers in our challenge to government in the coming months and years.

(1) Public Administration Vol 67 Winter 419-433