Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times”, goes the Chinese curse. Chinese scientists are certainly living in interesting times (as reported today in Nature) but they are unlikely to see it as a curse. The budget of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) has increased sevenfold since 1998 and is set — as part of bold plans — to rise 70% in the coming year. There may be a new-found emphasis on applied research in the Chinese Innovation 2020 plan but it is difficult to argue with budget increases of that scale.

Today we also saw something of the interesting times that are affecting UK science, but the outlook is not so rosy. Pfizer announced the closure of its research and development facility at Sandwich in Kent which employs 2400 people, many of them scientists. The government’s Business Secretary Vince Cable refused to interpret the decision as a vote of no confidence in the UK as a place to do high-tech research. That rings a little hollow given reports of Pfizer’s recent investments in — you guessed it — China.

The government produced further evidence today of its lack of strategic scientific thinking when Education Secretary Michael Gove announced the termination of ‘golden hello’ payments to new maths and science teachers. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) makes clear, the scheme is to be axed even though the country is still desperately short of teachers in these key areas. Disappointingly, the evidence base for the decision remains a mystery.

All very interesting, but rather than standing around shrugging at our misfortune, scientists in the UK need to speak up. Thanks to Parliament, there is the opportunity to do so.

Imran Khan, Director of CaSE, has provided a very useful survey of the science funding landscape in the UK now that the government has laid out its spending plans in detail. The initial settlement was greeted with a general sigh of relief back in October 2010 — we all know it could have been worse — but now we also know that the flat cash budget for the next four years has been melded with deep cuts in capital expenditure.

It’s not yet clear how that will play out, but Parliament is taking a keen interest. In the words of Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee:

“Difficult funding and implementation decisions in many areas will now have to be made by the Government and key budget holders. As the dust settles over the coming months, it will begin to become clear where the key pressure points will be, and how decision will impact on the UK scientific and research community and our world-renowned science base.”

In evidence given to the Committee last November science minister David Willetts has, understandably, defended the government’s position. The Committee has also taken the views of the chief executives of the Research Councils.

But now the MPs are also asking for submission from scientists themselves; commendably the Committee wants to have the view from ground level where the bite of reality is most keenly felt. So it is down to us — the working scientists — to give it to them. If you still think that science is vital, I urge you to consider making a submission by April 27th.

Regrettably, I think you’re likely to have something interesting to say.

Update (2-2-11): This was written in haste last night and I forgot to mention the other piece of the UK science jigsaw puzzle that the government seems unable to fit together – the impact on universities of visa restrictions that will limit the number of overseas students coming to the UK. As reported in the THE yesterday, it was the turn of the Home Affairs Committee to take evidence. Let’s hope they talk to the Sci Tech Committee, so that at least Parliament is joined up (though of course visa restrictions will affect all subjects).

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26 Responses to Interesting Times

  1. Austin says:

    As I said on Twitter, it is very hard not to see the thinking behind the cutting of “Golden Hellos” as being something along the lines of:

    “Well, there’ll be enough jobless science graduates in this recession that we don’t have to bribe them to go into teaching any more”

    – I wonder if the PGCE course at the Univ of Kent will get any applications from people that Pfizer are making redundant?

    Of course, while the recession might help “persuade” bioscience grads (of whom there are a lot these days) into teaching, I doubt it will work for physicists and mathematicians. Being numerate, they are likely to remain in demand in banking, the one sector of the economy that the Govt is happy to prop up with few (no?) questions asked.

  2. Stephen says:

    I suspect there is something to your calculation Austin. Maybe market forces will be sufficient to do the trick — which might be less than ideal but would be understandable — but I would like to see the calculation. As CaSE reports, Gove claimed the decision followed from ‘value for money’ analysis but the analysis has not been published.

    And it’s precisely on issues like this that the scientific community needs to maintain pressure. That’s why I hope people will use the opportunity to report back of the impact of govt decisions on science to the Sci. Tech. Committee.

  3. rpg says:

    If Pfizer is losing confidence in the UK, then it’s also losing confidence in the US. (H/T Derek). I’d be cautious of over-interpreting this move.

  4. Stephen says:

    A fair point Richard. I don’t think the move is a direct response to the UK’s current science policy, but the decision to cut jobs in the UK and the US is part of a longer term strategy for Pfizer that does have serious implications here.

    According to Reuters, Pfizer has targeted “China, Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia and Turkey” as important emerging markets. Outsourcing of R&D to places like India and China, as well as saving on costs, may be a way to expand within these markets.

    Perhaps that’s an international tide that is unstoppable but I’m pretty sure the correct UK response isn’t to reduce spending on science.

  5. rpg says:

    Oh, absolutely.

  6. Steve J says:

    Hi Professor Curry,

    I was shocked to hear about the closure of Pfizer’s Sandwich site. It seems not too long ago when a similar thing was happening to the UK’s largest Pharma, GSK, when the closure of their Harlow site was internally announced (see the 4th comment). This happened almost to the day this time last year. Although the cuts only indirectly affected me, I still felt sad for the people forced to make a choice between voluntary redundancy and being entered into a pool, where the potential outcomes were bleak. Similarly, a few ‘late-stage’ neuroscience projects were shipped out to their R&D China division.

    I realise that the innovation fund part of the science budget was thankfully not decreased, (if you ignore inflation), but recently frozen at ~£113M. However, I was horrified to hear that the capital spending budget, for science centres and associated buildings and equipment will be cut by 2/3, leaving only a third. This source puts the current budget at £105M: which I work out to unfortunately translate into a relatively significant £70M cut.

    I am really worried about the future of Science in this country. Germany and other English speaking labs are starting to become an attractive option for postgraduate study and beyond. So is the transfer to medicine course, which is the same length as some PhD programmes!

    Steve J
    (Final Year Undergraduate Biochemistry Student)

  7. AstraZeneca have been cutting UK R&D jobs too – they are shutting their Charnwood site in Leicestershire by end 2011 and are “re-sizing” at Alderley Park, at least according to what I have read on the internet. And GSK made major cuts to R&D a year or two back. So all in all things look pretty grim for Pharma in the UK.

    All the PharmaCos seem to be banking heavily on this “buy in pipeline from start-ups and small companies” idea. But everyone I know in such outfits in the UK says they are having a hell of a time getting investment, or even loans.

    Which begs the question: if the Govt is cutting University research funding, and venture capital isn’t funding start-ups, exactly where is the research going to be getting done that Pharma imagines they will be able to buy up to generate their new drug pipeline?

    I confess myself puzzled. And depressed.

    • chall says:

      I agree with you Austin. It’s been moving into this for a few years in the US as well as other European countries with smaller “biotech/innovative” companies that are later sold to one of the bigger Pharmas. I guess it was easier to make it work when there was a bunch of high risk venture capital around… not as much anymore with the current financial climate.

      I guess that would lead me to draw the same confused conclusion as you do in the end… no idea where they will come from. But I do fear that “smaller” diseases or “less sexy stuff” will once again move to the “no, we don’t have any money of it but this drug that others are looking into has a huge potential to make Tonnes”.

      I might just be bitter?!

  8. stephenemoss says:

    Stephen – thanks for the tip about the Govt Science and Tech Committee – I have circulated to PIs at our Institute. Probably important that they get deluged with responses, hopefully well reasoned and argued even if having to rely on personal experience and anecdote. Whether I’ll be able to sustain my own lab remains to be seen, but I have contacts at several eye centres in China and won’t hesitate to move our basic blue-skies work there if there is no funding to do it here. The blue skies work has yielded several patents over the last few years, some of which are now in product development and clinical trials, but if we have to move the basic science abroad then in the future any IP and associated potential to commercialise will be held by the overseas University. There are already quite a few US scientists running dual labs in this way.

  9. Frank says:

    William Cullerne-Bown’s latest post on this topic is a bit scary:
    After Pfizer, is it time to question the MRC’s budget?

  10. Stephen says:

    @Steve J – thanks for the comment. I’m afraid I think you are right to be concerned about the future of this industry. Pharma has been going through difficult times. As made clear in William Cullerne-Bown’s piece (which was mentioned by Frank and is well worth a read), the blockbuster pipeline seems to have dried up of late and that is causing a shake out across the industry – not only at Pfizer but at GSK (as you know), and Astra-Zeneca, as Austin has pointed out.

    In the light of this, the govt has to be very careful about adjustments it is making to the R&D landscape. It may argue that our present economic woes make it very difficult to be ‘creative’ — but we still have to try to plan for the future.

    @Austin – for what it’s worth, I too am puzzled and depressed. Well, frustrated.

    @Stephen – the rise of China in the past decade or so has been spectacular (as anyone who reads Nature can attest. And that is something that we are all going to have to deal with. Already there is a migration of Chinese scientists back to China and I guess they will be joined by more mobile foreigners if budgets there continue to rise.

    Your experiences are certainly interesting and I think would make useful reading for the Sci. Tech. Committee (thanks for circulating – hope others might do the same). I’ve been consulting with Imran Khan at CaSE about what sort of submission they think the Committee is likely to benefit from and hope to be able to report back.

  11. @stephenemoss says:

    If there is indeed a ‘drying up’ of blockbuster drugs, this must surely be linked to the erosion of basic science over the past decade. Almost three years ago I wrote about this in Nature (, in response to some two dozen focused calls issued by the MRC, of which not one had basic science as an objective. It really is stating the bleedin’ obvious that if you don’t fund basic research you’ll very quickly run out of things to translate. How has this erosion of basic science happened? Well, I don’t want to get into the clinician vs scientist issue, but it is noticeable that all the major funders of research (MRC, Wellcome, CRUK and probably others) have for some years been run by clinicians rather than scientists. A decade ago it was the opposite.

    If there is a desire to see new blockbuster drugs (and lets not also forget that diagnostic tools can be valuable and important), then we need calls for research that (i) need have no hypothesis, (ii) has no assured impact or short-term value, and (iii) is focused solely on making new discoveries. I can guarantee that anyone who submits such a grant application today, to any funding body, will be laughed out of the panel meeting.

  12. Stephen says:

    That’s an insightful letter Stephen – the dynamic between pure and applied research is, I think, the key to all this. Even with the best of intentions, it’s probably hard to get the balance right. Your concerns back in 2008 about the MRC emphasis on translational research are eloquently expressed:

    “Such concerns underline the need to include champions of basic science among science policy-makers and the bodies that fund biomedical research. Otherwise the fear is not that basic science will be deliberately run down, but that it will indeed become an afterthought and die by neglect.”

    The also presage the current obsession with ‘impact’ that has spread well beyond the MRC. Though there are obviously good reasons for considering the impact of all research, the tendency now is to view it as an over-riding factor when thinking about grant applications and, to my mind, that means an inexorable push away from blue-skies and towards applied work. Which, as you say, could be a contributory factor to the current woes of pharma (see also the update on William Cullerne-Brown’s post for a slightly different perspective on this).

    I have talked to BBSRC people who have emphasised that it is the quality of the science in applications that remains the most important criterion, and I’m sure this is meant sincerely (and is enacted at least at the level of the scientific committees that sift grant applications), but I can’t escape the nagging feeling that work that derives purely from curiosity is less valued now. I think we need those champions you spoke of more than ever.

  13. @JDMoffatt says:

    It’s worth emphasising that the pharma industry isnt a steam train, powering ahead but requiring coal in the form of continual discoveries to constantly produce drugs. A lot of discovery pharmacology has probably been done already, from a financial point of view. The unmet medical needs are fewer and in smaller cohorts that don’t always make business sense to address. Regulation of drug use has got tighter and tighter, and governments have left some markets unprotected in some countries by changing the rules eg. for generic drug production and sales. I reckon there’s only be one or two companies left in 10 years. They’ll be making beer in addition to easy-to-produce and protect biologics, rather than taking the usual £1billion/15 year small molecule discovery path. I’m only jesting in part.

    While I agree entirely with @stephenemoss with respect to basic research funding, there is also the problem that basic researchers are often unaware what constitutes a tractable target for Big Pharma to work on. A lot of basic discoveries tell us amazing things that go wrong with the body, but many of these can’t be translated into a little pill using – and I emphasise – the pharmaceutical industry’s model of drug discovery. They may look tractable, but it makes no business sense to do so. I’m a basic scientist myself, but when I hear people banging on eg. about the promises of gene therapy as the justification for doing basic science, I tend to lose it. Even the simplest genetic problems such as cystic fibrosis haven’t been sorted out in over 20 years of such talk.

    It would be lovely (and more productive) to live in a world where basic biological research was permitted to ask interesting questions for the sake of it, but does *any* scientific discipline enjoy this freedom these days? (Apart from, say, CERN.)

  14. @stephenemoss says:

    @JDMoffatt is right about basic scientists frequently not understanding how Big Pharma works. When I first started talking to companies almost 10 years ago I was (looking back) embarrassingly naive. But having now taken some of our basic research from initial discovery to application I think I’m starting to get the ‘big picture’, which is complex, varies from country to country, from company to company, and from disease to disease. In other words, there is no simple rule book that the basic researcher can read and digest, it’s very much learn as you go.

    And I should emphasise that my enthusiasm for basic research is not at the expense of all else. I would just like to see it properly supported, and valued equally with applied research.

  15. @JDMoffatt

    “the pharma industry isn’t a steam train”

    Indeed. As anyone with small children who read Thomas the Tank Engine books will tell you, the correct railway engine analogy for the PharmaBiz is a “diseasel”

  16. Stephen says:

    @jdmoffat –

    I’m a basic scientist myself, but when I hear people banging on eg. about the promises of gene therapy as the justification for doing basic science, I tend to lose it.

    I know what you mean but the prevailing impression seems to be that only work with ‘impact’ (usually taken to mean economic impact though I know some RC’s define it more broadly) is fundable. For example, see this report in the THE from last December about the views of Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust.

    There will always be a tension between curiosity and utility — it was there even at the foundation of the Royal Society. I guess we have to tug a bit harder on the curiosity end of the rope.

    @stephenemoss – thanks; I have limited experience in this area. No doubt it would be easier to realise the economic potential of research if more scientists were aware of the nitty-gritty of the process. To an extent that can be solved by training – (though again I wonder about the impact on the ‘culture’ of curiosity).

    @Austin – *groan* / 😉

    • @JDMoffatt says:

      My worry is the RCs are unduly biased by PR and fund anything likely to get a headline, rather than make progress on important problems (an insider at the BBSRC passed his experience of this to me). It leaves a trail of unreproducible rubbish in Nature/Cell and produces referee responses along the lines of “this headline has already been printed”.

      Science is losing its way.

      • Stephen says:

        I think there’s probably something in what you say, though it does come over as a tad overly-cynical. It would be interesting to observe the deliberations of the higher echelons of the Research Councils. Naturally (albeit lazily) they are going to want to see ‘high impact’ papers come out of the work that they fund. It guess it’s an easy way to demonstrate to their masters (i.e. the Treasury) that the money has been well spent.

        What I’d like to see is the RC’s adopt — publicly — a more robust defence of the broad value of science to our economy and society. Perhaps they are behind closed doors, but all the recent emphasis on economic impact seems to me to undermine that message.

  17. chall says:

    Stephen, interesting questions indeed.

    I wonder if there might be a great awakaning in say…. 30 years when all these “smaller” changes have accumulated into the landslide and we see exactly how hard it is to keeping up with good standards and “competition” if you don’t spend money and have a strategic plan. (not saying that people in charge don’t have a plan, however I wonder if it is that thought out?!)

    As for the industry/Pharma/drugs/basic science – I’m becoming more and more confused on “who is going to do the research” and “what kind of drugs will we have in the future” since it seems like the “new drugs” are more or less attached to income/lifestyle illnesses [lack of better word] and not the “basic save the world things”. Guess I was too naive when I started doing science? ^^

  18. Frank says:

    A colleague just sent me an article from the New York Review of Books, The Grim Threat to British Universities which points the finger of blame for some of our current woes on Margaret Thatcher and the widespread adoption of management practices developed in the USA.

  19. Stephen says:

    @Chall – I wouldn’t like to predict what the scientific/research landscape will look like in 30 years time. I’m no expert in this area but it is clear from articles I’ve read and comments made above that big pharma is going through some tough times and is taking a long, hard look at how it does things to make money. Lifestyle drugs is a depressing direction to go in but this is a market-driven business. (In the UK the Wellcome Trust attempts to fill some of the gaps by funding work into ‘neglected’ diseases, i.e. diseases of poor people – that’s an activity I’d like to see expanded).

    There was an interesting piece by Mark Henderson in The Times today about the development of drugs targeted to particular sub-populations (eg particular cancer pathologies) – I’d give a link but there is a paywall. It looks as if that could be a way to regain profitability.

  20. Stephen says:

    Thanks for the link Frank – that’s a fascinating (if horrific) article. Good to have an outsider’s perspective on British academia. I fear with tuition fees rises that we are heading for the worst of both worlds: micro-management of research and teaching.

  21. chall says:

    Stephen> I’m not a seerer either, but it will be interesting to see what happens in the future/ Hind sigh is after all, 20/20.

    Some of those “individualsed drugs” (e.g. certain cancer treatments and dose dependancy) might be the way to go in the future – although, at the moment it is not worth the cost. I guess it might become worth it since you would use “less” drugs and once you crack the code it might be very cheap indeed?! (A very simplified way of saying it but maybe that’s obvious?) As for now, the “market driven” style is why I’m involved with a phase one trial since the company that owns the patent of a certain thing is not making it anymore since it is not “profitable”. However, they don’t want to sell the patent either… *frustration*

    As for Wellcome Trust and “diseases of poor people”, I would think that is what Gates Foundation and other charities are focused on? Picking up where “public funding” might have been involved before too? I wonder how it’s affecting the TB consortium with all the Pharma shrinkages since that was partly driven as a collaboration btw various companies as well as WHO…

    My personal favourite is the antibiotic issue – or lack of [usable] antibiotics rather….

  22. Stephen says:

    @Chall – I’m more interested in trying to shape the future than waiting around to see how it turns out. 😉

    Sorry to hear of your frustrations with the phase I trial – that’s an odd bind.

    And thanks for reminding me about the good work of the Gates foundation. I’m not sure how the research they fund is translated into new therapeutics but I suppose, given Gates’ hard-headed business background, that’s something they think about very seriously.

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