VOLUME 2 - ISSUE 2 - BIOSCIENCES FEDERATION – WHAT HAS IT ACHIEVED ONE YEAR ON?
The Biosciences Federation was established in December 2002 and launched in September 2003 as an umbrella organisation to promote interaction within the biosciences community, particularly in areas of research and teaching; to provide information to assist the formulation of scientific policy; and, perhaps most challenging of all, to debate the ethical issues surrounding recent advances in the biosciences (see previous report by Nancy Rothwell).
The Federation is supported by an eclectic range of more than 30 learned societies (including the BPS) with the objective of representing as broad a spectrum as possible. The first Annual General Meeting, on 27 April 2004, provided an opportunity to review progress.
A Council of twelve members nominated by the constituent societies governs the Federation. Tom Blundell (University of Cambridge) was confirmed as President, the other members being Sir John Arbuthnott (Glasgow); Peter Downes (Dundee), Barry Furr (AstraZeneca), Neil Gow (Aberdeen), Tim Hammond (AstraZeneca); Sir David Hopwood (John Innes Centre; Norwich), Susan Iversen (Oxford), Nancy Lane (Cambridge), Ole Petersen (Manchester), Nancy Rothwell (Manchester) and Professor John Whitaker (Lancaster). Both Nancy Rothwell and Susan Iversen are BPS members, so pharmacology is well represented.
Following initial start- up grants from some constituent societies, the Federation has been placed on a modest but sound financial basis through subscriptions calculated on the number of life scientists within each organisation. The Research Councils have made a donation of £20,000 to support the Federation’s activities. The Federation does not at present directly employ any staff and relies on the enthusiasm, expertise and support of the officers of the constituent societies.
Any expansion of activities to meet its aims will require additional funding, and a grant – mainly to support the work of the Education Committee – has already been secured from the Gatsby Foundation. An application for charitable status is well advanced, and the meeting approved a change to the Objectives of the Federation, to emphasise more strongly the commitment to use charitable resources to promote biosciences and advance education in these fields for the benefit of the public, through conferences, the provision of information to the constituent organisations and representing a range of views to policy makers and funders.
Formulating Science Policy
During the last year the Federation has made more than 20 submissions on matters of general science policy to agencies including the Department of Education and Skills (on the Higher Education White Paper), the Office of Science and Technology (on sustainability of University Research), Higher Education Funding Councils (on Research Assessment Exercise and Future Funding Method for Teaching). The Federation is also tackling more contentious and controversial issues: for example, consultations with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the use of genetically modified crops.
More detailed work was carried out with two standing committees on Education and Animal Science. The Education Committee has been active in addressing the decline in numbers of students choosing to continue studying science subjects at school and the mismatch between school science and university expectations with a colloquium in October 2003 run in collaboration with the Biosciences Learning and Teaching Support Network. This attracted a large audience of schoolteachers, careers advisers and university admission tutors. An article arising from the meeting was published in Science In Parliament (2004).
The Committee has contributed to the development of national education policy with submissions to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on Key Stage 4 Biology and to the DfES on Developing Subject Specialisms.
Animal Science Group
The Animal Science Group, currently chaired by Nancy Rothwell with the BPS Executive Officer as Secretary, contributed to national policy with five submissions to government bodies and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The Home Office Animal Inspectorate and Office of Science and Technology regularly consult it for its expertise. The Group is actively monitoring the time taken to receive new or revised Home Office licences, and has shown that the target time of seven weeks is frequently missed. The time taken for the Ethical Review Process also appears to be increasing. The survey is continuing and a fourth report will be produced later this year.
The Group posts information on its web site (www.bsf.ac.uk/asg/) on the importance of animal use in medical and veterinary advances. It has also contributed to the development of new materials to explain to schools the need to continue to work with animal models of disease.
Keeping in contact and promoting interaction within the biosciences community
A key activity is the production of a monthly digest of national and international science news. This is distributed to member organisations, heads of biosciences departments, industry, Parliament (through the Science and Technology Committee) and other relevant organisations including the Royal Society, the ABPI, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Bioindustry Association. The Federation communicates with members through the production of monthly newsletters available from the website, providing information on the outcomes of Council meetings. It actively seeks suggestions for future activities.
Lobbying Government – Ian Gibson, MP
The AGM concluded with a wide ranging address by Ian Gibson MP, the Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, who has been very active in fostering better recognition of the importance of science both in Parliament and by the wider public.
He welcomed the establishment of the Federation and thought that it had a great opportunity to be the voice of British biology, particularly as Lord Sainsbury would now be meeting regularly with his Committee to answer questions on science policy. He emphasised that science funding needed to be long-term and sustained, but remained concerned about the career structures for scientists in universities, and science teaching in schools. For the latter, he saw Select Committees as having an important role in tracking funding, to ensure that it reached its intended targets.
Reflecting current government policy, he believed regional development agencies needed to work more closely with their local universities if they were to drive regional economic growth. He suggested the Federation should work with the pharmaceutical and other science-based industries and with patient groups.
Vision for the Future
In research, he felt there was a need for a better balance between applied and blue skies research, and in pharmaceutical research between prevention and cure. To achieve his vision for the future, he emphasised that lobbying government on behalf of science needs to be co-ordinated in order to counteract the views put forward by minority groups. These are often small, but are well-funded and able to pay professional lobbyists. Inevitably, in the absence of any counter arguments from the scientific community, MPs will tend to form their opinions on the information supplied to them from these pressure groups.
He used the Human Tissue Bill currently before Parliament, which threatens to prevent much current biomedical research, as an example of an issue that has rapidly gained momentum through the legislative process before counter scientific arguments could be made. Ironically, this Bill, introduced to satisfy one minority group, might threaten the translation into clinical practice of remarkable advances made in understanding fundamental biological processes through the use of transgenic and other animal models (whose use is opposed by another minority).
His final plea was for more scientists to be more active in formulating science policy. In response to this challenge, further committees are planned by the Federation, particularly to scan the legislative horizon in the UK and especially Europe, to be more proactive in informing politicians and the public about the practical and ethical issues of advances in biosciences and the impact of impending legislation.
Since this article was written, the Federation has been given charitable status.