Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, worked for a time on quantum chemistry in the late 70s – looking at the decay of hydrocarbon molecules which, it would not be fun to imagine, is now informing her euro policy.David Cameron
has no such pedigree and admitted as much in one of the seminars running up to Monday's announcement of a multimillion-pound package of measures to support the UK's life sciences industry.David Cameron
Seated around the bo...t-shaped table in the cabinet room were not cabinet ministers but the UK's best scientists, including Sir John Bell and Sir Mark Walport, as well as industry experts.
The politics, philosophy and economics graduate (you must know he got a first by now) prime minister cleared his throat and, according to one present, put his hands up: "I'm an arts graduate, not a scientist. I got a C in O-level biology." So, go easy.
The plan is that every three months or so, Cameron dutifully devotes two hours of his diary to a science seminar at the behest of his science minister, David Willetts, and one of his advisers Rohan Silva, who both have the science bug quite bad.
There has been one on genomics – the field that studies the genome in its entirety, not as individual genes – and there will be a seminar on nanotechnology in the new year.
Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and evolutionary biologist Matt Ridley have been in.
"Two brains Willetts", so called by our Michael White, has also had neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in. They are not slouches.
Cameron is supposed to have been persuaded about science spending in opposition when he hung out with the industrialist Sir John Rose and, sure enough, there came some reforms.
But for vast periods of Cameron's time in opposition, the science community felt spurned – he was the last of the three party leaders to address the Royal Society on the importance of science in the runup to the 2010 election.
Things become different this week after a bit of a big bang, with Cameron announcing a new tranche of money for life sciences.
There may be difficulties ahead though. Tony Blair spoke out to defend scientists at Huntingdon Life Sciences, and protests by anti-vivisectionists turned nasty with violent protesters imprisoned in 2006. Officials warned their prison sentences are now all on the cusp of expiring, releasing animal rights protesters just in time for Cameron's new push.
Huntingdon Life Sciences No matter, Cameron decided on the step change. In February, the pharmaceuticals company Pfizer announced it was closing its plant at Sandwich with the loss of 2,400 jobs, prompting a crisis meeting of 60 or 70 civil servants along with more political advisers all racked with despair at such a Bad News Story.
closing its plant at Sandwich with the loss of 2,400 jobs UK life sciences is the third largest contributor to economic growth in the UK (4,000 companies employing 160,000 and with a turnover of £50bn).
The discussion was of how to persuade someone else to pick up the site, what could be done with the building, did the flood defences need improving, and so on.
Politicians in the room had a different take. A month later, Novartis closed its site at Horsham, West Sussex. George Osborne has a huge pharma site in his Cheshire constituency.
The No 10 permanent secretary, Jeremy Heywood, is best friends with the heart surgeon Ara Darzi who became a minister for Gordon Brown and is supposed to have influenced Heywood in building up a decade-long analysis of the British pharma industry. The departure of Pfizer and Novartis were not property problems but science problems.
Pfizer So to the seminar on "genomics". McKinsey gave a presentation. The pharma industry is struggling, it said, because the science has changed and if you don't get the science, you won't get the business.
Developments in the understanding of genes and how they interact mean that while pharmaceutical companies used to produce one drug that worked on a massive scale, for many people now, developments in the study of the genome were meaning that treatments could be better tailored and medicine is becoming more individual.
Which is good if it can get to the patient, but it breaks the pharma business model. Pharma companies used to work with thousands of researchers on staff but now they are sacking those employees and instead working with universities whose research companies can spin off and make their own products – America and Israel have understood this, the UK hasn't.
Cameron listened. In the seminar there was not a lot of genetics, but a lot of economics – you could almost call it "genomics" except that word has already been nabbed. Rohan Silva passed him a note saying: "If you are interested in this say, 'I'd like a paper on this.' " Of course, he did. The paper proposed the measures Cameron announced on Monday: reducing the so-called "valley of death" between laboratories and the patient where it is simply too expensive and there are not the investors to help ideas get out of the lab and into the hospital, an end to which Osborne stumped up £180m.
They also hope to reduce the cost of clinical testing for rare diseases by opening up NHS data – people anonymously offering up the study of their genomes for the good of wider society.
The message? Your country's communal health needs lots and lots of individuals' genetic info – a big bug society (sorry).
This new push also fits in with their wider agenda of setting data free. Just as he influenced Thatcher, the philosopher Karl Popper and his commitment to the scientific method has also informed the Cameroon push to change the way government does business.
Popper wrote what some in No 10 think is the greatest book – about the scientific method. They appropriate him for their own because they think his insight is "anti-utopian".
Popper believed in the value of relentless experimentation and that ideas only remain true until they are falsified and until that point they were always falsifiable – Newtonian physics was right until it was overthrown by Einstein.
To help this happen, Popper wanted an open society with free data to allow a multiplicity of testing scientific experiments. And his worldview comforts those in Downing Street as they set about the difficult reforms to public services – they think he too would have been suspicious of a central state having the perfect idea about how to provide such services.
And so the next reform for the scientific community will be making academic papers more easily accessible for more people to access. As it stands, the government spends millions on academic research which only academics themselves at expensive establishments – funded in part by the taxpayer – can access.
Information becomes locked in a walled garden. Now Willetts is looking at how to ask universities to remove the impediments and put their ideas out there for public consumption.
Science funding crisis
Huntingdon Life Sciences
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