Labour’s tuition fee plan isn’t the answer. By Oliver Summers

February has been a busy month, with the first week starting off with a letter in The Times from Universities UK (UUK) warning against Labour’s proposed policy of capping undergraduate tuition fees in England from £9,000 to £6,000. Then after a bit of a fracas on tax avoidance, and Boots boss bashing in the middle, we’ve now come back full circle to Labour’s tuition fees policy as Lord Mandelson cautioned Labour to wait until after the General Election before making a commitment on tuition fees. Continue reading


Living In the Dark: Genetics, Diagnosis and Uncertainty. By Simon Hazelwood-Smith

Progress in genetics is remarkable. We know of over 6000 mutations that cause disease, have created fully functional synthetic chromosomes and are seeing gene therapy successfully restore sight and hearing. The human genome sequence was completed in 2003, representing $3 billion of investment and 13 years of work. Whole genome sequencing now costs $1000 and takes one day.

Nevertheless there remain thousands of people affected by genetic disease; in fact 60% of us will be affected in some way in our lifetimes. At birth this number drops to around 3%, meaning that there are 13,000 children born each year with a genetic condition.

Given the unrelenting advances in our understanding of genetics, it is perhaps a surprise that, currently, around 50% of children born with a genetic condition will receive no specific diagnosis.

Children lacking a diagnosis are grouped together with the blanket term ‘Syndromes without a name’ or SWAN. A tag of SWAN on a child can signify the start of dozens of tests, hospital time, disappointment and frustration. Continue reading

GCSA at 50: reflections of the past, present and future of scientific advice. By Andrew Howard

Solly Zuckerman, left, overlooks PM Wilson’s briefing on the effects of pesticides on peregrines.

On Tuesday, Remembrance Day, the Royal Society hosted an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA). Discussions were held across two panels with a total of 5 men that have held the role – including the incumbent Mark Walport – concerning the history and fate of scientific advice. This took place markedly just 24 hours before the role of scientific advice in policy-making suffered a serious knock-back, as it emerged Anne Glover’s current position as the European Commission’s CSA was being scrapped. Nonetheless, at the end of 50 years of scientific advice in the UK, the future role of the GCSA looked to be promising from the anniversary’s proceedings. Continue reading

Evidence and Policymaking by Oliver Summers

With evidence in drug policy expanding the divide between the coalition parties, and being cited in the resignation letter of Home Office Minister Norman Baker. What is ‘evidence based policy’ and is it worth resigning over?

Evidence based policymaking (EBPM), is an extension of the evidence based medicine ideal into public policy. Evidence is obtained via quantitative research, usually through Randomised Control Trials (RCTs). In an RCT on a new policy intervention, the policy is compared with no intervention, or an existing policy. In this way it is possible to determine statistically if the new intervention works; or works better than the currently used actions.

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Metrics: a quality measure? By Simon Hazelwood-Smith

How do you measure research quality? In the UK, this question is part of a task given to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a 5-year assessment by expert review of the relative quality of all academic research in the UK.

The REF is a very large undertaking; almost 200,000 separate research outputs and just over 50,000 staff were submitted for assessment with the cost for the whole process at around £60 million. However with the results being used to allocate around £2 billion of funding, the reasoning behind being so thorough becomes very clear.

The methodology of the REF is firmly rooted in the concept of peer-review. Representative expert panels judge entries in each of the 36 different academic fields. Each panel has the responsibility of grading submissions on research output, research impact, and research environment.

However this does not mean that the methods of the REF are necessarily set in stone. The rise in the number and visibility of metrics, alongside the addition of ‘research impact’ as a new area in which entries are judged, has meant that it is being widely suggested that metrics may have a role to play in future iterations of research assessment.

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