Scientists for Labour

Guest Opinions

These blog commentaries do not represent the opinion of SfL as a group but rather are the personal opinions of individual members or guest authors. As a result some opinions may even go against the views of SfL but have been posted in order to start debate on a subject and to allow alternate views to be presented on this site.

Mrs May caves in on EU medicines

Mrs May caves in on EU medicines

Not a whisper as Tory Lords cross Tory red line

The Lords gave a drubbing to Mrs May yesterday on the Customs Union, as you may have noticed if you don’t just get your news off the box.

But what has gone virtually unnoticed is that the government is in full retreat on the new EU Clinical Trials Directive. This sets EU standards for testing novel medicines across the EU28.

Annabel Goldie, a Tory spokesperson in the Lords, gave the “strongest possible reassurance on the UK’s commitment to implement” the directive.

What she didn’t say is that this is the strongest possible reassurance that Mrs May will cross one of her own red lines. Within a clinical trial, any disputes that arise will be resolved ultimately by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Yet leaving the court’s jurisdiction is a key government Brexit policy goal.

Why has the government crossed its own red line? Obviously the whole of the life sciences sector — public and private — wants and needs to work with EU27 countries to develop new medicines.

The need arises from the reality of biomedicine today. The age of “blockbuster drugs” has ended and we are at the beginning of the development of new highly targeted drugs. This means that they may work very well, but they only work on a small number of patients.

Therefore, to test these new drugs, one needs access to enough of these rare patients to conduct a statistically robust trial. These numbers can only be found efficiently in a very large population like that of the EU28. The UK population is just too small.

So the choice for the UK is stark. Either keep a Brexit red line and destroy our life sciences sector. Or follow the Clinical Trials Directive and stay under ECJ jurisdiction.

Their Lordships saw sense. Even Brexit extremists like Lords Ridley, Lawson and Forsyth saw sense, despite the fact that only one of them has a declared shareholding in life sciences. Either they swallowed their pride on the ECJ red line, or they didn’t know that the directive implicitly requires ECJ jurisdiction.

Lady Goldie didn’t refer to the ECJ in her statement on this issue to the Lords. It might have stirred up a hornets’ nest. She just gave her “strongest possible reassurance” on implementing the directive.

And then, to show how tough the government is, she said she couldn’t guarantee the UK would fully join in with the EU27 in designing clinical trials or sharing clinical trial data. This was, she said, a matter for negotiations in Brussels that the UK could not pre-empt.

This is not being tough. It’s being plain ignorant. You can’t have a pan-European clinical trial unless you design it together and collect the data together. There’s no point in accepting the EU Clinical Trials Directive unless you intend to work together. Annabel Goldie is, however, not ignorant. Nor is Theresa May. But maybe they take us to be.

Martin Yuille

Statement on the Death of Stephen Hawking

Scientists for Labour noted with great sadness the passing of Professor Stephen Hawking earlier this week.

Professor Hawking was not only one of the foremost cosmologists of our time, but also a staunch defender of many of the principles that we in the Labour Party hold dear. Whether it be encouraging action on climate change, defending against further privatisation of public services or arguing for the continued access to European programmes after Brexit, his wisdom on these topics was always welcome. We in Scientists for Labour are especially grateful to the wonderful support he lent to one of our members, Daniel Zeichner, in his succesful 2015 and 2017 General Election campaigns for the Cambridge constituency.

Both science and society have lost a dear friend this week, and we shall all be the poorer for it.

Has light entered the black hole of Brexit?


Scientists for Labour responds to Financial Times[1] and Daily Express[2] reports that senior Conservatives, including Jeremy Hunt, Greg Clark and Chris Grayling, now recognise the wish of research-intensive industries — medicines, aviation and chemicals — to stay under the umbrella of EU regulatory bodies.

“Light has at last penetrated the black Brexit hole in the heads of ministers: Research, development and innovation are a global race. Coming second can mean the devastation of your industry”, said John Unsworth, Chair of Scientists for Labour.

All the delays and added transactional costs of leaving European agencies for medicines, aviation and chemicals guarantee the loss of UK jobs and destroy hopes of UK global leadership. This shows that the Brexiters are beginning to see what researchers and industry have been saying since before the referendum

There are many other EU agencies with responsibilities that have a research dimension. Ministers must press Mrs May to stay under the umbrella of all 27 of those agencies.[3] The sheer breadth covered by these agencies across science is staggering. Kier Starmer, Labour shadow Brexit secretary has said the UK could seek to remain under the ECJ’s jurisdiction in the “longer term” to retain membership of EU-managed agencies.[4] The Prime Minister simply said ”I’ll have nothing whatsoever to do with the ECJ in any circumstance”, rather than ignoring dogma and saying ”Look, the role may have to change. Let’s be grown up and sensible about what it might be”.

It’s about time Mrs May started to listen to the scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who actually carry out the research and innovation needed to grow UK industry.

Scientists for Labour was early to raise the issue of withdrawal from Euratom by March 2019. This EU agency ensures we have nuclear safety including “the support of radiation protection and development of medical applications of radiation, including, inter alia, the secure and safe supply and use of radioisotopes.”[5] The Government has stated that “withdrawal from Euratom will not affect the UK’s ability to import medical radioisotopes”.[6] Nevertheless there remain uncertainties and we support the plea from Royal College of Radiologists[7] and others[8] that ensuring a seamless continuing supply of medical isotopes must form a key part of Brexit negotiations. The consequences of a disrupted radioisotope supply have already been demonstrated when there was a fire in the Channel Tunnel in 2008.

This is just one of many major implications for UK science from Brexit which receive insufficient attention from both politicians and Brexit commentators, and no satisfactory answers from Brexiters within or without the Government.



[3] 27 EU agencies have a clear research and innovation dimension: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work; European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training; European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions; European Environment Agency; European Institute of Innovation and Technology; European Training Foundation; European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction; European Medicines Agency; European Union Intellectual Property Office; Community Plant Variety Office; European Food Safety Authority; European Maritime Safety Agency; European Aviation Safety Agency; European Network and Information Security Agency; European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control; European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency; European Railway Agency; European Fisheries Control Agency; European Chemicals Agency; European Defence Agency; European Union Satellite Centre; Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications; European Systemic Risk Board; Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators; European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT Systems in the area of freedom, security and justice; Euratom Supply Agency; European Joint Undertaking for ITER and the Development of Fusion Energy.






Science Teaching

Secondary science teaching is still very much in the grip of the Govian revolution. Even though Michael Gove has been out of the education brief for over three years, his shadow still looms large. The ramifications of his reforms are still being felt throughout secondary schools and in some cases the reforms are yet still to be fully realised.

As a teacher one of the most frustrating things about the reforms was the fact that Science A levels were changed before the science GCSEs. This is contrary to any coherent notion of academic progression, and made the already-difficult jump from GCSE to A level even greater for the cohort of students most affected. The new A level courses were started in 2015 and the first cohort sat the reformed exams last summer in 2017. The students sitting these exams had obviously done the ‘old’ style GCSEs. This is true of all my current sixth form pupils who will be expected to sit the new A levels without the benefit of having studied the reformed GCSEs. How much better would it have been to have staged the changes in line with the children’s advancement through school? And once this problem had become widely known, surely subsequent Education Secretaries could have paused the roll-out to allow schools to adapt.

Reformed GCSEs were started in September 2016 and will be examined for the first time in summer 2018. These have much more content and require a lot more application of knowledge and analytical skills than the ‘old’ style GCSEs. Certainly they will help to bridge the gap between GCSE and A level, so that A level science will be less of a culture shock. However they do not cater much for lower ability students. There is now very little difference between the content covered in the higher paper (Grades 9-4) and the Foundation paper (5-1). This is likely to demotivate and frustrate the lower ability students, who will inevitably ‘switch off’ in science lessons. The bias towards catering for very academic students whilst effectively ignoring the needs of the remainder is short sighted and does not recognise the importance of basic scientific understanding and knowledge for all of society.

Despite the slightly chaotic implementation some aspects of the reforms can be seen as positive. The A level chemistry course now has a big emphasis on practical skills. Having fully embraced the need to increase the amount of practical work that my students carry out over the two year course I have seen the benefits of these changes. Improved understanding through practical experience, increased engagement and motivation in lessons and the development of other transferable skills such as teamwork and organisation. Practical skills are assessed continuously throughout the two year course by teacher assessment. Competent students will receive a ‘Pass’ for the practical endorsement on their exam certificate. In addition 15% of exam marks are based on practical skills and scenarios.

The increased and improved focus on practical skills is not without its challenges, mind. As well as the A Levels, the new science GCSEs also have an increased emphasis on practical work. This poses more of a problem with bigger class sizes and a shortage of equipment and funds. It is ironic that during an era of cuts, schools are expected to run more expensive science lessons using more resources and requiring more specialised technician time. If government, rightly, wants teachers to undertake lessons with a more practical element and with more specialisation, it needs to start funding schools sufficiently and stop implicitly expecting corners to be cut. A good start would be to take a leaf out of Labour’s 2017 manifesto and move towards a unified service, free at the point of use that is dedicated to properly equipping the next generation with the skills and ability to cope with the changes in world of work.

Specifically government should introduce any reforms they propose in a logical fashion, should commit to a fair funding formula for 16-18 year olds and should learn the lessons of their unnecessary mistakes from the last seven years.

So by 2020 there will be the first cohort of students who have studied both reformed science GCSEs and A levels. These students will have experienced the full consequences of the Gove reforms and had the benefit of a more challenging and practical science curriculum at both GCSE and A level. This has to be good for universities, future employers and STEM industries. However, some of our potentially best students have been put off from taking A level sciences because of the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance. If we couple that with the mistaken reforms to the transition between GCSE and A level, then we can see that we now have a cohort of students who will feel the failures of this government for years to come.  Had the reforms to Key stage 4 & 5 been implemented in a less chaotic way, many of these negative outcomes could have been avoided. Also, there would not have been three years’ worth of students who were expected to tackle the demands of the new A level course without having studied the reformed GCSE. The impact on the prospects for these students will be felt for years to come, with hundreds of thousands of students having missed out on the full benefits of an improved science curriculum, purely because of the chaotic and ideological way in which this government is implementing its changes.

The Economy, its Science, stupid!



In 2010, Michael Brooks renowned Science writer launched ‘The Science Party’. A single issue party with a focus on one goal, "that science, mathematics and engineering have sufficient funding, skills and political priority".

By 2020 Labour should be the home of scientific funding and breakthrough research. You see I’m no scientist but it doesn’t take one to see the causality between properly funded scientific research and Economic growth. That’s why much like John McDonnell’s Economic Advisory Committee, we need a Science Advisory Committee.


Poor understanding = Poor policy. Getting it right on animal research.



In my younger days I was torn between policy and science, since I had the grades and enthusiasm for both, but the system is such that one must choose, so I wrestled with the problem, still couldn't decide, took PPE and subscribed to the New Scientist.

Not long into my studies I remember being struck during one lesson by just how much the classical philosophers, whose work we were discussing, had got their explanations for the world so very wrong as a result of predating modern scientific knowledge. At that moment I had a very important insight: you can't formulate decent philosophy, let alone workable policy, if you don't understand how things work.

And so to animal research: the thing that nobody likes to think about and, therefore, doesn't know much about which makes it very vulnerable to misrepresentation. Worse still, individuals may have fallen prey to the numerous misrepresentations of the 'anti-vivisection' movement, which has for its history maintained that animal experiments would amount to nothing. Such individuals think that '9 out of 10 drugs that pass animal tests fail in humans' (a misconception) and believe you can model whole-body systems using cell cultures and computer models (you can't).


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