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25/07/2014

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STEM in Parliament: Science promotes economic and medical wellbeing

Phil Willis welcomes catapult funding

As the longest parliamentary session in living memory drew to a close with the black clouds of economic austerity raining down on the nation, it was hugely encouraging to see that UK science is seen by politicians as a beacon of hope for the future. Certainly, the case for science made so brilliantly in 2010 by the science community retains the ear of ministers with a continued raft of positive announcements emanating across government but, crucially, from the Treasury.

Phil Willis welcomes catapult funding

As the longest parliamentary session in living memory drew to a close with the black clouds of economic austerity raining down on the nation, it was hugely encouraging to see that UK science is seen by politicians as a beacon of hope for the future. Certainly, the case for science made so brilliantly in 2010 by the science community retains the ear of ministers with a continued raft of positive announcements emanating across government but, crucially, from the Treasury.

The 2012 Budget recognized the folly of the previous 50 per cent cuts in the capital research. It announced a £100m capital increase for our research-intensive universities and a £60m investment in aerospace to promote one of the UK’s technology success stories. However it was the continued commitment to UK medical science that demonstrated a more success-driven strategy from our policy makers.

Of course such a move was hardly surprising as the nation is only second to the US in its performance in medical science, with 20 per cent of the top global medicines developed in the UK and a return per $ spent outperforming the US. In the past such success would be seen as an excuse NOT to spend further, so the announcement of a £75 million investment in a New Strategy for UK Regenerative Medicine1 was hugely positive for the medical research community.

Catapult for cell therapy
The investment did not make front page news but was the latest in a series of commitments demonstrating the shift in thinking amongst policy makers and the science community. That the UK is a world leader in regenerative medicine is without question. This emerging science is creating huge global interest. It promises to revolutionise patient care, regenerating damaged tissues and organs by stimulating the body’s own repair systems and enabling tissues or organs to simply repair themselves.

However, the fact that the UK government is not only prepared to back a winner financially but also to bring together the research community, the Technology Strategy Board, the Departments of Business Innovation and Skills and Health to develop this area of science shows a willingness to abandon the traditional ‘silo’ approach to innovation, by creating the fabulously named Cell Therapy Catapult Centre.2

Research-led NHS
This welcome announcement came almost to the day when the infamous Health and Social Care Bill received the Royal Assent. Interesting because, despite all the highly negative publicity, this Act created for the first time a legal obligation for the Secretary of State to ‘promote’ research throughout the NHS - in effect making the UK health system the only ‘research-led’ health care system in the world.

With the establishment of this new duty , the setting up of a Health Research Authority to drive the clinical research agenda, and access for research to the world’s largest healthcare data base - the NHS - we have at last a legislative and research framework working in tandem. For initiatives like the New Strategy for UK Regenerative Medicine this means yet more joined-up policy with fewer gaps into which so many of the UK’s great research ideas have in the past disappeared.

Of course it would be easy to get too carried away, but the journey to see science as the catalyst to promote both the health and economic wellbeing of the nation is at last being recognized. At last too, ministers are prepared to support success with further investment, making UK research more attractive to commercial investors. Let us see whether, like regenerative medicine, this vision can be catapulted forward at an ever increasing speed and with even greater investment. After all, better patient outcomes and increased economic prosperity are goals all of us can sign up to.

1   See www.mrc.ac.uk/Newspublications/News/MRC008536
2   See www.innovateuk.org/deliveringinnovation/catapults.ashx

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Phil Willis
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is Chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities and a member of House of Lords Science and Technology Committee
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