spending review

I noticed with interest that there is a motion before the Church of England synod meeting this week suggesting that it is a Christian duty to donate blood and organs?

Quite apart from conjuring up some interesting visions of the collecting plate in our churches this coming weekend, it did get me thinking about how much and how far we are prepared to go to support medical research?

In America, Vice-President Joe Biden has been hand-picked to oversee Obama’s ‘cancer moon-shot’ initiative. Actually, this is one of a series of announcements that Obama has made which would change the complexion of funding for medical research in the United States.  Congress is receptive to the idea but Republicans in particular are concerned about the impact on people’s taxes.

‘ResearchAmerica,’ the proactive lobby group which aims to raise public awareness and supporting for medical research, last week published the results of an opinion poll showing that 50% of Americans would pay higher taxes to fund cancer research.  The idea is unsurprisingly favoured more by Democrats than Republicans.  Apparently 5 cents in every $1 of tax goes on medical research in the US – I am not sure what the figure here in the UK is.

These sorts of debates pop up every once in a while on both sides of the water.  The take-home message tends to be more or less the same – many of us are prepared to pay quite a high price to advance the search for a cure.  But they also beg many questions. Would we say the same if other diseases were front-and-centre for instance?  When will we see a politicians brave enough to say the same of research into mental health for instance, or palliative care?  To which end I applaud this week’s Independent Mental Health Taskforce report that calls for a co-ordinated strategy on mental health research in the UK.

It is also legitimate for us as citizens to ask something about the race itself.  Is this a marathon that successive Governments will sign up too?  Or a Sprint that will last only as long as the current runner has a breath in their body?  Who gets to define the finishing line – politicians, scientist or citizen? And finally….

…..has the starter gun really been fired on a race to the finish?  Or have we really just marked the beginning of another unedifying race for more funding between institutions and organisations serving their own interests?



Science funding is on the verge of getting a right good hammering in the US.

From afar it looks like the policy equivalent of the storms and twisters that each year cut a swathe along tornado alley running through the Mid-West. If you were watching on weather radar, this frightening picture would look like a large and very angry red blob moving across the screen in your direction.

In a sentence, the Budget Bill going through Congress would cut about £2 billion off federal funding of science as far as I can understand. But the impact is already being felt in universities, labs and patient groups up and down the land as organisations dial-down what they do in anticipation of a harsher future. The whole spending cuts process even has a name – ‘sequestration’ – which makes it sound like the Spanish Inquisition.

Take cover would be the best response of those on the end of this you might think. But, thankfully, Americans are not taking cover. In fact many are showing their passionate opposition to this, both visually and vocally. Just this week ResearchAmerica – one of the key lobby organisation – organised and lead a rally on Congress.

All this will sound familiar to the many of you who were involved with the Science is Vital campaign in the run-up to the last UK Government Spending Review in 2010. And I see the campaign has now revived itself to mobilise action ahead of the deadline for our next spending review which is 26th June.

Science is Vital Mk II seems a rather curious beast if I may so. In fact I sense the deadening of a few too many ‘ologies.’ The campaign call for UK Government funding to be increased to 0.8% GDP to match our international competitors is very specific and all the more odd because of it. Why? Because I can’t remember many successful campaigns with a decimal point in its slogan.

The concern with international competitiveness is absolutely right but can become a dangerous obsession. I recall that in 2010 President Obama was lauded here and elsewhere for his short-term stimulus package for science. I also remember one of our Research Council heads telling me at the time how dangerous it was. He, like many others, could see that after this seduction would come rejection for a great number of US scientists and their work. That looks ever more likely.

Solidity and sustainability were the watchwords following the 2010 spending review and they are worth heralding again.

We must also recognise the very fragile society around us. A few mornings ago I woke up to a strange juxtaposition of stories on the Today Programme. The first was about the argument over whether it is possible to live on £53 a week. The other was a celebration of the tens of millions extra being spent on the Hadron Collider.

Now I totally get the importance of building a pretzel shaped tunnel beneath Switzerland and during light around it to find participles. But I also understand how this might sound to the person scraping pennies together to find a few scraps to eat. And to their MP for that matter.

This is not a time to allow such things to emerge like high altars or catholic symbols of our firmly held beliefs in what science might do. Rather it’s a moment to get real in every sense of that word and, in particular, how this endeavour is utterly democratic in how it benefits society.

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.

****you might also like to read William Cullerne Bown’s analysis of the Science Minister’s speech referred to in this blog and which appeared on the same day as that below***

Yesterday the Royal Society posted on its website the full text of Lord Rees’ Christmas Lecture to the Science and Policy Research Centre. Its worth a read for its very grounded comments about the role of scientific advisers and scientific advice in Government, and why scientific evidence can’t reign supreme in a policy or political context.

It is the sort of grounding I was in need of, after a day – thoroughly absorbing I hasten to add, attending an expert seminar of the Administrative Data Taskforce.  This is the group set up under the Government’s plan for economic growth to look at how data sets held by different Government departments could and should be linked in the public interest.  Inevitably, I found myself in the sub-group looking at public engagement.  It’s an occupational hazard I am afraid.

The public.  Now there’s a thing.

Or should I say [the definite article] public.  For, funny how easily public engagement work can become stymied by a desire of its architects to, first, make a pre-emptive strike on the definite article.

We must pin ‘the’ public down before we ask them.  We must know who they are.  We must see the whites of their eyes.  As if they were somehow an elusive enemy that we need to label to make sense of our own insecurity and fit our academicness.   On the other hand we could engage – talk, listen and learn – first, and then begin to design our future discourse with ‘the public.’ 

I digress.

Lord Rees and, indeed, the definite article, came to mind as I tonight pondered the reaction to the Science Minister, David Willett’s, recent speech in which he said he wanted to make the UK ‘the best place in the world to do science.’  He also ventured a few ideas such as a new science university funded by business and those with lots of money.

I say ‘reaction’ because apart from one or two very thoughtful pieces – especially this by Richard Jones , a rapid response by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and the Russell Group‘s pre-emptive declaration the day before that it had set up a special group to look at business and industry collaboration (you mean they didn’t have one before, go figure?), comment from around the world of science has been somewhat lacking and certainly not unified.  Well, apart from people saying they were still looking for Government to express ‘the vision.’ 

Lord Rees came to mind because I recall attending a meeting chaired by him in the days after the Spending Review announcement.  The relief of the great and good in the room was palpable.  But it was the sort of relief expressed by someone who has had a bank loan approved, not that which is about getting the go-ahead to shoot for the moon.  The forensic disassembling of the announcement there and then by many, was prescient given what we now know about the funding picture.

Nonetheless, it was agreed by all that unity had been vital – Science is Vital – to getting a better than expected result from Government and that this unity needed to be solidly maintained behind a shared vision.  Willetts has also said so himself on many occasions since.

In pondering today’s unfolding picture I wonder whether the science community is now on the verge of failing itself and its Minister, of losing the momentum of the Spending Review campaign.  It certainly does not seem to have moved on from those days.  Yes, the concerns over funding, impact and other issues are heartfelt and significant.  But, without care, the near-term view of these matters is potentially energy-sapping for all concerned; they distract from the bigger task of setting out where we want to be.

In  my view, it seems to want to pin Willetts down until he has served up the definite article in a palatable form, rather than serving up its own comprehensive plan, in a unified manner and with a strong lobby behind it.  At the moment one perceives a lack of coherence and more than a hint of parochialism, or worse still, of it being just a little non-plussed by events and having gone to ground.  And for all these reasons I have some sympathy for the Minister.

Shortly after I became Chief Executive at AMRC in early 2006, David Cooksey published his review of health research.  Eager to impress and make a mark, I banged out a news release with the usual words of welcome while highlighting what I thought was the most important aspect.  Let’s just say it wasn’t quite like any other people’s releases.

The day after the announcement a few CEOs of shall we say the more well-known medical research charities rang me to advise me from firing from the hip.  Although I took umbrage at the time, I now understand why they did.  It wasn’t what I said that mattered, so much as the appearance it gave that we were not singing from the same hymn sheet. More over that the vision and its acceptance and articulation by the Government had been hard-fought for and not to be lost cheaply.  The legacy of that can be seen in the strengthening of NIHR, the funding of health research and the life sciences announcement before Christmas.

I am one step removed from the science debate now, so who am I to comment?  But science needs to up its game if it really is serious about ‘the vision’ for UK science.  Only then will we see the definitive document.

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.

Research Fortnight have posted a blog I wrote prior to Christmas in which I gave my ‘glass half-full’ take on what the science budget allocations mean for the Medical Research Council (MRC). 

Elsewhere..in today’s New Year Honours, congratulations go to Adrian Smith, DG Knowledge and Innovation at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, who has been knighted.  Sir Adrian’s ‘knight in shining armour’ role in the spending review has been widely commented and so what better conclusion to the year.  The Times Higher has a comprehensive list of other honours made should you be looking for one.

And Third Sector magazine has a brief article on charity honours.

Have a safe one.

If you are looking for the detail of today’s announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on the science budget allocations for the spending review period then please look at the excellent summary by our policy and public affairs manager, Becky Purvis, here.

Further perspective from me in due course.  But, given Breast Cancer Campaign’s letter on CRSF last week and our ongoing campaign on this issue, I am very pleased about the Government’s guideline to HEFCE that they allocate research funding to universities with the aim of protecting funding from external sources including that from medical research charities.  We’ll know more in the New Year.