LIBERAL DEMOCRAT FRINGE - The business secretary was committed to high quality scientific research, Baroness Northover stressed today.

This article was first published by DeHavilland

The Lib Dem Peer was speaking at a fringe event entitled ‘Research to the rescue!’ at which charities pressed the importance of medical research to the UK’s economy.

Speaking at the meeting organised by the Health Hotel, British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK and the Stroke Association were:

  • Baroness Northover, Government Whip
  • Dr. Iain Frame, Diabetes UK;
  • Joe Korner, Stroke Association; and
  • Professor Peter Weissberg, British Heart Foundation

Dr. Julien Huppert, chairing the meeting, explained that it would include questions by video.

Benefits of medical research

The first of these featured Lord Turnberg, scientific adviser to the Association of Medical Research, who asked the panel’s views on the benefits of medical research to the economy and society.

Baroness Northover believed the UK had an outstanding record in medical research, pointing to the international benefit of this work. With regard to funding, the Peer pointed out this was predominately done by charities, and paid tribute to the third sector noting that Cancer Research UK funded more research than the MRC. She also suggested that the pharmaceutical industry in the UK was strong and R&D based. She added that it was key for economic prosperity that the UK stayed ahead in terms of research and development.

Dr. Frame contended research was worthwhile and the health of the nation benefitted from research. Patients now had a stronger voice on the work of medical research, he pointed out.

Mr. Korner concurred, but pointed out that the benefits were often subtle. Stroke had been traditionally under-funded the UK, he told the meeting. The lack of money into research in this area was an issue he highlighted, as he called for better investment.

Professor Weissberg estimated it cost the economy £9bn to help care for people with cardiovascular diseases each year. An independent study had estimated that every £1 invested in medical research yielded a return of 39p in perpetuity. In his opinion it had resulted in humanitarian and health benefits and contributed a lot to the economy.

Supporting Medical Research

Moving on a representative of Diabetes UK asked how the UK could be more supportive of medical research.

Baroness Northover believed the government must put forward the case for science. She paid tribute to Dr. Evan Harris and Dr. Julian Huppert, underling the importance of parliamentarians who understood science. Vince Cable was committed to high quality science, she argued.

Dr. Frame suggested that bureaucratic processes for scientists must be made easier. He also called for support for clinicians who wanted to combine a career as a clinician within the NHS and engage in research. He also pressed the importance of blue skies research.

Mr. Korner pointed out that much of the research surrounded improving care and its outcomes would benefit the economy. He believed it was necessary to win this argument in order to ensure the scientific base was supported. Greater collaboration between charities to prove concepts in research would also be supportive, he added.

Turning to the issue of financial support to encourage more allied health professionals to get involved in research, Mr. Kormer described this as a key issue for his organisation. He noted that the NHS had been minded towards research but was in danger of losing this ethos as the health economy changed.

Dr. Frame believed this was an issue which highlighted the importance of charitable funding, while Baroness Northover added the government should encourage more lateral thinking. She pointed to the work the department was doing on dementia at the moment as an example of this.

UK’s role

A question was posed on how the UK would continue as a leader in the field of medical research, with Professor Weissberg arguing it was essential. He suggested Britain was often slow at adopting innovations in healthcare which came from outside the UK and believed a research-based clinical environment would deliver better care.

In particular he called for a vibrant and well-resourced university environment and warned that the Charity Research Support Fund required greater attention. A facilitative regulatory framework and research-orientated health service were also key, in his opinion. He worried that GP commissioners would not have research at the top of their agenda and warned that charities could not be expected to plug the spending gaps in the NHS and universities.

Baroness Northover suggested to the room that it was important to look carefully at what the Business Secretary had said on science and the “extremely important connection” between innovation and progress and on the immigration cap.

Mr. Korner added that innovation in the health service was key. The Stroke Association were concerned about planning across the health service and keen to ensure the ability to plan across boundaries when the NHS structural changes were implemented.

The panel were next pressed on research into mental illness. Mr. Kormer agreed joined-up research was required, describing mental health as a key issue. Professor Weissberg acknowledged the strong link between mental illness and heart disease, pointing out that the BHF funded the only unit in the UK led by a clinical psychologist examining mental processes and cardiovascular disease. Dr. Frame agreed this was an important issue.

Parkinsons UK questioned the panel immigration specifically, with Baroness Northover confirming the government was acutely aware of the issues around this and that it was a policy area that was being debated publicly. Dr. Huppert added that the evidence to the Home Affairs Committee suggested the cap was a “daft” idea. He believed there had always been tensions in the Conservative Party between those who were pro-business and others he termed “xenophobic”. The Lib Dems were strengthening the liberal wing of the party, he added.

Beating Bowel Cancer were concerned there was not enough emphasis on diagnosis and prevention in research, with Mr. Korner agreeing that funding into diagnosis was crucial.

Finally on the question of animal testing, Baroness Northover said scientists were acutely aware of the concerns in this area. Professor Weissberg added that while BHF did fund animal testing it was the most rigorously scrutinised of areas. Dr. Frame echoed this point.