New year

It’s a new year, and I hope it’s a good one for you. The Tory-led coalition’s cuts are starting to bite now. Thousands of jobs are going in local councils, and soon we’ll be noticing the services going. In our local area the visiting music teachers are being cut from schools. If these aren’t front line cuts, I don’t know what is. What services do you know of that have been cut?

Science is vital

Science funding is being threatened on an unprecedented scale. It’s so bad, scientists are leaving their benches and laboratories, and campaigning against the cuts. The Science is Vital campaign is encouraging everyone who cares about science to contact their MP, sign their petition, attend the demo, or lobby parliament.

Therefore, on 15th September I duly sent this brief email to Julian Sturdy MP, my constituency MP.

Dear Julian,

I hope you will sign EDM 707. Many of your constituents (myself included) work in science both in Universities in Yorkshire, and in related scientific industries. Please assure me of your commitment to science funding in the UK by signing this EDM.

Here is the reply I received from him. Disappointingly, he made no mention of the EDM I had asked him to sign. It was a boiler-plate response, incredibly similar to the speech made a few days earlier by Vince Cable.

Here is the reply I sent last week – I’m still awaiting a response.

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your reply dated 20 September 2010, regarding science funding. I’m pleased that you acknowledge the value that science makes to the economy, and that scientific research has its own merit.

I disagree with you about the need for the sector to do more, with less however. Scientific funding in the UK already gets less funding than many other OECD countries, and yet ‘punches above its weight’ with 10% of the best publications coming from the UK. The sector is deeply financially constrained, with funding levels at the same as they were, in real terms, in 1986. You argue that the output measure is what matters, not the input measure – but without that input, that investment from government, scientists will leave the UK, and internationally excellent scientists will not chose to come to the UK. The output measure depends on having excellent scientists carrying out excellent research, and without the appropriate input that will not happen. The reputation of the UK as a place to do science, will be immeasurably damaged by cuts that are out of step with the international consensus.

Research in the UK is already rationed by excellence. Speak to any member of a grant committee in any research council, and they will tell you that much excellent research is not funded. I suggest you investigate how many top rated grants were not funded in the last couple of years. In the RAE2008, 90% of the research submitted was rated as internationally recognized.

Finally, I would like to challenge you on the assertion that ‘there is no justification for public money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding’. What does this mean? It is not always clear in advance how research will come to be commercially useful. For example, research in pure maths concerning prime numbers could never have been anticipated to be as useful as it is – but without that research, we would have no secure transactions on the internet. If it is obvious that work will be commercially useful, shouldn’t it be funded by industry, rather than by the taxpayer? It also impossible to determine in advance if research will have an impact on theory – theory may be wrong, or the experiment may fail – how can you anticipate what will be theoretically outstanding?

Please engage with the scientific community within your constituency, and at Westminster, to form your own opinion on the importance of science. Please support the science is vital campaign (http://www.scienceisvital.com), and attend the lobby of parliament on 12th October. Please sign EDM 707 and EDM 767.

Thank you for your time,

Will he engage? Will he make his own enquiries, and form his own opinions, rather than simply supporting the party line? I’ll let you know when he replies!

Sex and politics

In a world where ‘temptress’ is an acceptable name for some childrens shoes, it might not seem surprising that children are on the pill at age 11. It is easy to glibly condemn the sexualisation of children, without understanding the myriad reasons that the pill may actually be prescribed, including PCOS, acne, and painful periods. But thats not such an interesting story of course.

On a related note, the Tories have decided that while its acceptable to force people to clean toilets in strip clubs, its not acceptable to advertise the better paid, “performance” jobs in job centres. The government said this was to prevent jobseekers feeling they had to accept jobs they felt uncomfortable with. I suspect though, many people would also be uncomfortable cleaning toilets! Its a strange moral standard that is being used, based on Victorian morality. I’m sure there are more pressing things the government should be concerning itself with.

Big Society

I’ve been trying to find time to write this blog for the last week or so. But I’ve been busy – helping out at school serving breakfast before sports day, counting the money and doing the end of year accounts for the PTA, and fitting in my full time job aswell.
Not only am I heavily involved in the PTA (or Friend’s group, as we are officially known – because there are no teachers in our PTA, they don’t have time), but I’m also a school governor. School governors form the largest volunteer workforce in the UK with around 370,000 governor places nationally. And do you know what, there just aren’t enough people with time to fill all the school governor places. About 10 -15% of these places are always vacant, and the vacancy rate rises to 30% or more in some inner city areas where many positions have been unfilled long-term.
This blog is about the big society though, so why am I talking about my busy week, and about the problems in recruiting school governors? Because we already have a Big Society. We already have many busy, caring, people helping out in their communities. In our village, a group of about 10 people organise a large carnival every year, raising over £13,000 for the sports centre, for the use of the whole village, and communities beyond our village. These things are already happening, and we don’t need Dave to tell us to get involved in our locality.
So what is this Big Society idea? It fell a bit flat during the election campaign, because no one could describe it. And it isn’t being well described now.
Many are suspicious of it – its being suggested by the Tories and therefore must automatically be bad. Some have suggested it is privatisation of services by the back door. It seems clear that it is a way of ammeliorating some of the effects of government cuts. That it will involve charities and volunteers doing the work of government on the cheap.
But who is going to do this volunteering? We already struggle to get enough people to help out in the PTA. There are school governor vacancies. People are worried about their jobs, and working many hours. Single parents will have to go to work when their children start school. We struggle to get people involved in the Big Society we have already, even in nice middle class villages. And the problems are worse in inner city areas.
And what will be the quality of the services? A nice OAP may be willing to man the library desk, but a library needs a qualified librarian. If volunteers take on social services, such as social care, who is going to monitor the quality of that service? And what about the agendas of those providing the service? Do you want the Church of Scientology providing mental health support?

It is two months since the General Election and already the past feels like another country. Two parties who didn’t seem to agree on anything are now in government together – and between them they have somehow agreed that the National Health Service should be consigned to the dustbin of history. I don’t recall either party campaigning on this and I’m certain the British people didn’t vote for it. But make no mistake, that is what they are now proposing.

Ok, they have dressed it up a bit. They have talked about the essential principle of healthcare being free at the point of delivery, about curtailing “NHS bureaucracy” and handing power to GPs and patients. But the logical end of their plans is the break-up of the NHS we know and mostly love.  Handing commissioning powers to GPs may not sound that significant, especially if it is being taken away from the villainous NHS ‘managers’, but actually these reforms are the most significant since the NHS was created. Ironic too, given that the first thing Andrew Lansley promised was an end to “top down reorganisations”.

What is proposed is that £80 billion of public funding is handed to GPs, who will be asked to spend it commissioning local services.  They will replace Primary Care Trusts – statutory local bodies who currently carry out this commissioning work and are held accountable to a Professional Executive Committee of GPs, dentists and other clinicians. The vast majority of GPs – who may be great doctors  in most  cases, have no experience of buying services.  If you have tried to get an appointment with one recently, you will know they don’t have a great deal of time to spare. They are now expected to be able to plan, cost and commission NHS services in consortia with their fellow GPs – and act as “patients’ expert guides” through the NHS.  How on earth they will have the time to do this – never mind the skills or the inclination – is anybody’s guess.

Alongside this breathtaking proposal sits another – that hospitals should opt out of the NHS and become ‘social enterprises’, able to make a profit, set their own wage structures and develop partnerships with the private sector. It could be said the previous government opened the door to this by creating foundation trusts, but it is an astonishing development nonetheless. It means that we will have private contractors (GPs) commissioning services from ‘social enterprises’ – in effect private concerns – and presumably looking to private providers such as Humana, Virgin Healthcare and BUPA to provide the administrative, technical and accountancy support they will need. “The NHS” will in effect become a sort of central board, a regulator which oversees these business to business dealings. It will also mean that national standards become a thing of the past – already, vital patient rights are being removed, such as 18 week hospital waits, GP appointments within 48 hours and A&E services within four hours – and seemingly the right to see a specialist within two weeks of a cancer diagnosis. As ‘social enterprises’ team up with private providers to pick off the most profitable treatments, expect a postcode lottery the like of which we have never seen before.

If this was about tackling the much-vaunted economic deficit, it would be bad enough, but in fact it has emerged that the proposals will cost much more than they save over the next five years. These changes are driven purely by ideology – a belief in the ‘small state’ and opposition to the welfare state’s finest achievement. Nor is this just a Tory position – LibDems including Nick Clegg and David Laws have previously called for more private health provider involvement in the NHS.

A service on the scale of the NHS requires substantial management – in fact, a comparable private sector enterprise would probably have more people managing than the NHS does. Healthcare commissioning and healthcare pathways are complex business, and if you are to have a single national service with one set of standards, you need people to run it. The suggestion that GPs are these people is incredibly muddled – sure,  clinicians should have more say than they have perhaps traditionally had, but their skills don’t lie in planning, accountancy, monitoring or booking appointments. As one respondee said, if you go to a restaurant, you hope the waiter is good, but you don’t want him designing the menus.

But the government – cheered on by a slavering right wing press with its hatred of public sector workers – doesn’t see it that way. In fact, they don’t see it the way most British people do – the NHS retains a remarkable 90% satisfaction rate from patients. This is an administration which doesn’t believe in the NHS – it conflicts with everything they believe about the role of the state, which they think should be tiny. So not only do they want to scrap the NHS, they also want to wage war on welfare benefits, cut back on policing and allow parents to set up their own schools outside the state system. This government is going further in its opposition to the NHS and the public sector than even Margaret Thatcher dared. It is, in effect, abolishing it. If you believe in the NHS – and poll after poll says that a huge majority of Brits do – it’s time to stand up and fight for it.

A smaller degree

Vince Cable has the solution to the crisis about to unfold in higher education. Two year degrees! Those lazy inefficient boffins can teach 40 weeks of the year, and produce more graduates, with less resource.

Some courses, he claims, have a meagre 8 hours of teaching time per week! Of course students can work harder and get their degree finished sooner.

As one of those lazy boffins, this idea fills me with dread. Yes, our students could do the degree in less time. They have 20 weeks of teaching a year, of course they could have more. They have five weeks of exams, three weeks of revision, so study for a mere 28 weeks in total. Twenty-eight weeks x three years = 84 weeks; and so two years of forty weeks nearly adds up. However, we are not teachers. We are University Lecturers. Academics. Involved in teaching and research. Our research is at the heart of our teaching. University is not like school – we are not teaching to a set syllabus. Physics at Cambridge is not the same as physics at Oxford, or indeed physics at the University of Central Lancashire. The people who lecture to the students are those who have done the actual research and have generated knowledge. If this link between research and teaching is to be maintained, then the summer vacation, and 3 year degrees must be preserved.

However, it is apparent that Vince Cable does not appreciate this relationship between research and teaching. His proposal that any institution should be able to administer a university exam, and that universities should be brands, rather than necessarily delivering teaching themselves proposed a breakdown of th relationship between the academy and the undergraduate. Already in Europe and the US our 3 year degrees are viewed as insufficient, what value will a 2 year degree taught by a private institution be, internationally?

This attack, on one of our truely world leading industries, is short sighted, and will damage our economy and international standing.

Because the Department of Health thinks you should! Here is a photo of a poster from an unnamed source at the Department of Health.
DH poster

I don’t know where to start with what is wrong with this. Patronising, sexist, a waste of money. Searching and tagging is better than folders anyway. And what category are the shoes in the open locker?!

Perhaps this sort of thing should be cut… anyone feel like a FoI request to see how much it cost?