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‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’

Phil Willis ponders an enduring question

The political debate in Parliament following any Budget Statement is always a little surreal, but talking to a group of former colleagues across the political divide about how science had fared reminded me of that wonderful Monty Python sketch: ’What did the Romans ever do for us?’

Wearing my most critical hat, I was pleasantly surprised just how well science, technology and engineering and maths (STEM) had fared. Some may wonder what lowering corporation tax to 23 per cent by 2015 would do for STEM. However, pharmaceuticals is one of the largest and most profitable sectors of the UK economy. It would be a prime beneficiary. Reducing tax on business profits below those of our main competitors, US, France and Germany, makes UK a more attractive place for research.

Equally the long term fixing of the price for carbon at £16 per tonne by 2013 and £20 by 2020 gives investors in new green technologies greater certainty about their investments.

Economic recovery

But ‘’What did the Romans ever do for us?’ is the cry from those who see a direct investment in STEM as the holy grail. Admittedly there was little new to shout about. We can all welcome an additional £100 million to invest in new science facilities at the Babraham research campus in Cambridge, the Norwich research park for environmental and life sciences, the International Space Innovation Centre at Harwell, and the national science and innovation campus at Daresbury, paid for from the Bank Levy. But this was never going to be a ‘big spend’ budget.

What interested many of my colleagues across parliament was the fact that STEM is seen as being at the very heart of our economic recovery. On this, all political parties agree. Nowhere was this more evident than in the areas of health care and life sciences where, miraculously, the link between the two is now recognised. As Vince Cable pointed out in the ‘Plan for Growth’ strategy, the NHS is the largest purchaser of goods and services from the healthcare and life sciences sector, which employs over 100,000 people. The life science sector in the UK accounts for 28 per cent of all UK business R&D.

Benefits of medical research

However, of all the announcements in the Budget, I regarded the decision to accept the Academy of Medical Sciences recommendation to set up a ‘health research regulatory agency’ as the most important, followed closely by the commitment to drive down the time it takes to recruit first patients to clinical trials.

At present, the UK is a world leader in medical-related research partly because of our superb science base and its close proximity to teaching and research hospitals, but also because we have the NHS and the largest patient data base in the world. To exploit our unique advantages relies not only on money, but the political will to change a system of research and clinical governance that is bureaucratic and resistant to change.

Cancer Research UK found that, after funding for a study had been agreed, it took on average 621 days to recruit the first patient to the clinical trial! The government wants that driven down to no more than 70 days.  Establishing a more efficient regulatory system is essential to achieving that goal.  Imagine the impetus these changes will give to our life sciences and the incentive there will be for global companies to do their research in the UK!  Imagine too, the advantages for the constituents of every one of our MPs who will benefit most from exploiting our research base.

Who said the Romans never did anything for us?


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Lord Willis of Knaresborough is Chair of the Association for Medical Research Charities

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Lord Willis of Knaresborough
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is Chair of the Association for Medical Research Charities
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