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Pathfinders: Doubleplusungood

Orwell as can be expected...

 The UK science community has been heaving a small sigh of relief lately having suffered less damage than expected from the spending cuts. True, the boffins are facing a funding freeze, keeping their £4.6bn budget at 2010 levels for the next 5 years, meaning a probable cut through inflation of around 10 percent in real terms, however this is as nothing compared to the mass cattle-trucking of scientific projects in the direction of the knacker’s yard that many had expected. But before the techies had even reached for a pipette of champers in celebration they were sobered by the further alarming news that the director general for science and research, the official in charge of that science budget and traditionally from respectable scientific stock, could soon be replaced by a – gasp – civil servant (‘UK research spending decisions set for a shake-up’, New Scientist online, 17 November).

 It would be a mystery to anyone who has been following the Orwellian tactics of the Con-Dem Coalition lately why scientists should be shocked at this. Indeed, despite what they may think, they have still got off lightly. It could have been far worse.

 A miasma of doublethink pervades the Con-Dem Coalition’s every political pronouncement as they manoeuvre to secure their grubby rich friends every concession while bamboozling their victims into believing that they are the ones getting more ‘freedoms’. Home Secretary Theresa May, for example, has been loudly ridiculing the Equality legislation planned by that silly Harriet Har-person, claiming that inequality somehow makes you free (‘Theresa May scraps equality in the name of fairness’, Guardian, 17 November). The Equality Duty was designed to end decades of legal confusion in which victims of discrimination had virtually no chance of redress against big corporations, and instead to place the responsibility on employers to demonstrate through good practice that they were not discriminating in the workplace, a kind of guilty-until-proved innocent reversal of emphasis. Instead, in a spin of doubletalk, May uses the very failures of the old legislation to argue against any new legislation that might potentially solve the problem. In the name of fairness, the bosses get themselves off the hook and discriminated groups can look forward to having to make all the running to get anyone to listen to them – just as it’s always been. They are free to complain, and the bosses are free to ignore them, which is what the Coalition means by freedom.   Similarly emancipated are workers everywhere on medication, as the Government cuts the cojones from the drug regulatory body the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and hands prescription powers entirely to GPs. No longer shall poor old Mrs Jones be denied the £30,000 treatment that might have kept her in miserable pain for an extra six weeks, because that demonic nest of Doctor Deaths at NICE considered it not worth the money – now any GP can prescribe anything! Anything, that is, that their budget can afford and that they can be badgered or bluffed or blackmailed into buying by the omni-present pharmaceutical salesmen. No more Mr NICE Guy, now it’s Mr Market and drugs for whoever can pay the most and shout the loudest.   Best to stay healthy and away from doctors then, but in that case you’ll be taking advice on how to stay healthy from, you guessed it, the very businesses which have always devoted so much of their time and your money in making you unhealthy in the first place. With a cynicism that could collapse lungs, the Health Secretary has given up the usual murky practice of consulting with big business behind closed doors before making health policy, and handed the power of policy-making entirely over to the businesses. In what is one of the most blatant displays of English Tea Partyism, and in a broadside designed to de-mast the dreaded Food Standards Agency, Andrew Lansley has set up new ‘responsibility deal’ networks to deal with obesity, alcoholism, exercise, behavioural problems and health and safety at work, in which key consultants are members of Unilever, the Wine and Spirit Trade Organisation, Mars, all big supermarkets and a raft of other commercial interests not famous for their health credentials. In the craven old days, a minister would at least formulate policy first and then run it past these moguls to see what he could get away with. In the galloping gutlessness of the new order, Lansley has simply invited the moguls to come up with their proposals and run them past him, in order to see what he can get past the media. An early casualty of this supine approach has been the abandonment of the simple and easy to understand ‘traffic light’ nutritional coding system in favour of a different system known through studies to be incomprehensible to customers, despite the fact that some supermarkets had already agreed to give the traffic light system a try (‘Good for the nation’s health – or big business?’ Guardian, 13 November).

What next, one wonders? The handing of UK defence policy to the arms industry perhaps. Meanwhile the doublethink redoubles as public sector workers are being liberated from their jobs and told that they have the freedom to take over their former workplaces and run them as ‘John Lewis co-operatives’, after the style of the mutualised department store. Taking the name of this column cruelly in vain Francis Maude, the minister in the Cabinet Office in charge of civil servants, has launched 12 ‘Pathfinder’ initiatives, fledgling public-service but employee-owned mutuals who are the supposed trailblazers for a new era in which all responsibilities formerly borne by the state will now be borne by social workers and health visitors running their own co-ops. As Thatcher gave us ‘right-to-buy’, Maude is giving us ‘right-to-run’, but not everyone is fooled by the spin. As some pundits point out, such co-ops will have a huge uphill struggle, and most will collapse and be eaten up by, yes, you guessed it, the big corporations. And what is so liberating about exposing public services to the free market anyway? wonders Unite General Secretary Tony Woodley: “You go to John Lewis to buy a sofa or a fridge, not to have chemotherapy” (Guardian, 17 November)

In view of these developments, the science community should think itself lucky it’s only getting a civil servant to administer its budget. In a year from now it could be a McDonalds executive. The proof that capitalism is fundamentally not good for healthy science or the science of health is made clearer by the fact that, although government regulation solves none of the basic problems facing science in a money age, the further the drift towards an unregulated free market, the worse it gets for science, as indeed for everyone else.