Julian Huppert MP writes: promoting innovative science and technology, safeguarding NHS data for research

Science and research are absolutely key to our economy, both now and in the future. That’s why I and others have been pressing the Coalition Government to protect the £4.6 billion revenue budget for science and research programs. And we’ve managed more; since January, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills has announced £495 million of investment in capital projects to maximize our research capacity.

This funding is extremely welcome. But it is how this money is spent – not just how many millions are pumped into the economy – which will determine whether the economy recovers and whether we will be recognised as world leaders in science and innovation. That is why I am pleased to endorse some of the extremely important announcements made over the last week.

Firstly, the Government outlined its Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth. This strategy made clear how the Government plans to encourage people to think up innovative new products, and how it will help them bring those products to market.

Nowadays many innovative ideas start life in very small companies with large aspirations. So I am pleased to see that the Government will expand the Small Company R&D Tax Credit and that it is taking Technology and Innovation Centres seriously – though the name it has come up with, ‘Catapult’, runs the risk of becoming  more amusing that visionary.

But the Government is also reviving some old ideas, which should never have been killed off in the first place. The highly successful SMART awards for innovation provided funding for small businesses for proof of concept, marketing and prototype development, but were watered down year after year, in terms of their financial value and success rates. But now the government will relaunch them – properly funded.

Having received one of these awards myself in 2004, I know just how crucial they are; giving small companies the chance to take a risk with innovative ideas. It is only by taking these risks that we can make breakthroughs and become world leaders in research, innovation and technology.

Secondly, the Government showed its commitment to the life sciences industry: an industry which already boasts a turnover of £50 billion, employs around 160,000 people and is the third largest contributor to economic growth in the UK.

But life sciences aren’t just about a healthy balance sheet. This industry is about the development of life saving treatments and cutting edge technology.

The Government, therefore, announced an extra £180 million of catalyst funding, which constitutes the rather inappropriately named “Valley of Death fund”. This money will be used to support the development of promising innovations and ensure that they make it from the lab to the hospital – too many great ideas just don’t make it from lab to bedside.

The allocation of this money through a joint venture between the Medical Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board should finally mean that Government money is spent on scientific research and development in a sensible way.

This is in conjunction with a £130 million fund for Stratified Medicines, which will be used to undertake research to understand more about how diseases evolve and what treatments can be made available.

In addition the Government announced a new Early Access Scheme which will provide seriously ill patients, following specific recommendations by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority, with access to new drugs around a year before they are fully licensed.

This is a very significant step forward. Not only will healthcare improve for the seriously ill, the UK will be world leaders in the development and deployment of brand new drugs. This measure will stop red-tape getting in the way of doing what is morally right, albeit with strong safeguards to prevent side-effects.

Finally, and controversially, the Government has announced new measures to enable doctors, academics and companies to use NHS data for research.

The NHS contains more data about health than any other health system in the world. For me, as an academic and a liberal, any extension in the use of this data is both exciting and worrying.

Collating and using evidence is the backbone of scientific research. But when this use of information is extended to NHS patients, we’re talking about real people and their medical records. And this data will be used by private sector companies for the purposes of research and, ultimately, profit.

So I welcome this announcement, but only to the extent that private information is given away by consent, it is anonymised and it is kept extremely secure. Any breach of these criteria undermines the entire program and would be a worrying breach of individual liberty. I have already pressed Andrew Lansley to publish exactly how the necessary safeguards can be implemented.

For too long Governments have thrown money at the sciences without understanding them, and have failed to support innovative new businesses. I believe that, over the last 18 months, we have made real progress at remedying this problem. Now we have to work hard to keep up the momentum, and ensure that the UK will be world leaders in scientific research and development.

Julian is Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Life Sciences.

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3 Comments

  • philip wren 14th Dec '11 - 9:01am

    Julian

    Thank you for the article, the information within it and your watching over the privacy issue.

    As an insulin dependent diabetic whose life has been transformed by the insulin pump, the development of new medical technology and science has a direct impact upon me. I welcome the news you have shared.

    It is good to see the government taking such positive steps. If we weren’t all hung up on the euro crisis and Cameron the Inept, you might have had the response this good news desreves.

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