Thursday, 14 June 2012


The ARMA Conference 2012 kicked off with a two-headed plenary from Andrew Plume (Elsevier) and Sharmila Nebhrajani (AMRC). It was an odd combination: Plume gave us an overview of 'brain circulation' – that's the brain drain in old money – and Nebhrajani banged the drum for the value of the medical research charities' professional association. What did they have in common? Hmm. Availability seemed to be the uniting factor. That and an evangelical love of statistics.

Plume started by dispelling some myths. Rather than being a negative, the movement of talent brings enormous benefit. Not only do those who leave the UK usually return with additional skills, knowledge and experience, but the country also benefits from the 'inflow' of talent. Those coming are, according to Elsevier, more productive. Plume floated his proposition on a raft of numbers. The UK has the lowest number of 'stay at home' researchers: only 37% of British academics don't, at some stage in their career, move abroad, compared with 55% of Americans and 75% of Chinese academics. Elsewhere he produced graphs which showed the number of publications involving overseas partners. The UK has the largest proportion, but interestingly the EU27 graph looks very similar to the USA's, which might suggest that continent-wide collaboration makes it unnecessary to look further afield.

He then handed over to Nebhrajani, who executed a nifty hand brake turn to take the delegates in a completely different direction. The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) is an umbrella organisation that represents a huge variety of funders, including the behemoth that is Wellcome on one end of the spectrum to the likes of the CGD Society on the other. All have to have rigorous peer review of funding applications if they want to be a member, and some 94% of charitable giving to medical research in the UK is to an AMRC member. The benefits of membership are that AMRC can act as a 'kitemark' to reassure the public that they're the real McCoy, and not some fly by night outfit, but it also allows the members to access some Dept of Health support.

Nebhrajani did raise a couple of more general points. Firstly, she made the point the the research community has to start thinking now about how to justify the 'ringfence' that the government provided in the last Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in readiness for the next one  in a couple of years' time.  Secondly, she noted that charitable funding is beginning to fall: it fell by 1% in 2011-12 after rises of between 5-20% in the preceding four years. She finished by admitting that she was 'very worried' about cuts to NHS research funding, and the new landscape in which GPs would hold the purse strings. Not only did none of these locally-based commissioning groups currently talk about research, but in England and Wales the NHS was hamstrung by bureaucratic approval processes, meaning that projects took four times as long to get the nod than they did in Scotland or Germany.

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