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Medical research and national science

Dialogue is crucial for both, argues Phil Willis

I suspect few men when purchasing those ‘must have’ gifts for friends and family for Christmas will have considered the potential danger of all those till receipts. That is, unless they read an article from The Telegraph which, on 30 June last year, posed the question: ‘Can shopping receipts make you impotent?’  The article outlined how bisophenol A ( BPA) in the ink from till receipts  ‘could shift the balance of the sex hormones in men towards oestrogen’  which in turn could lead to less sex drive and impotency! The fact that this theory was advanced by a consultant urologist, Professor Some, added authenticity - yet there was not a shred of empirical evidence to support the claims.

Personally I thought this was an excellent ruse for never going shopping again! However it highlighted, in a rather superficial way, why we need to continually make the case for improving public dialogue about research and science. Indeed, when I was invited to Chair the Association for Medical Research Charities (AMRC), it was this vital area of public understanding I wanted to continue championing.

Explaining research

The need to involve an often sceptical public in donating to research that might not bear fruit in their lifetimes is a big ask. But so important is charitable giving for medical research, that such a dialogue is crucial.

Last year, AMRC’s 124 member charities contributed over £1bn to medical and health research in the UK. But the climate is getting tougher and whether donations are £5 or £500,000, scientists are being asked, ‘OK, so what has my money done and what difference is it making?’

The simple answer is hope – if we don’t have research we don’t have hope. For scientists to explain what they are doing to create hope is just about as powerful example of public dialogue with science it is possible to have. Simply being aware that last year the NHS conducted over 3,000 clinical trials in areas from cancers and neurological conditions to ageing – with over a third paid for by charities - helps build confidence and understanding in research.

Engagement won for science

The success of the campaign ‘Science is Vital’ depended on this growing public awareness and understanding of why scientific research is so important. It persuaded the new coalition government to continue funding scientific research despite the huge fiscal and budget deficits. That this campaign was successful was not accidental or fortuitous – it used extensive research and compelling case studies to tell the tale of UK science as globally successful. In other words it used the lessons of good public engagement to win its case, and not some reliance on intellectual superiority.

What was particularly striking about the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign was the presentation of UK ‘science’ as a whole, demonstrating the inter-dependence of disciplines rather than their individual importance. It made impressive reading. UK science is third in the world in citations per researcher; 90 per cent of our research is ‘internationally excellent’ or ‘world class’; we have the world’s largest charitable research community; and 30 per cent of our GDP is produced by sectors intensive in STEM areas.

Dialogue fundamental

The tendency may now be for the research community to rest on its laurels and sigh a collective sigh of relief. To do so would be hugely foolish. The pressure on funds from government, charities and commerce will only grow, as will the competition from global competitors. The lesson of 2010 is clear – improving public dialogue about research and science is no longer an optional extra to satisfy sponsors. It is fundamental to the future success of UK science itself.

Now where are those till receipts?

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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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