Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the British Medical Association (BMA)

  The British Medical Association (BMA) is a voluntary, professional association that represents all doctors from all branches of medicine across the UK. About 80% of practising doctors are members, as are nearly 14,000 medical students and over 3,000 members overseas.


    —  Co-operation between departments of science and medicine has led to many advances in healthcare (paragraphs 2-6);

    —  Sustaining and developing student capacity in English science departments, particularly chemistry, is vital to support medical research capability and an expansion of doctor numbers (paragraphs 7-9); we are also concerned about reducing capacity in microbiology, anatomy and physiology (10 -11);

    —  Maintaining regional capacity in scientific subjects would promote medicine departments' abilities to pioneer collaborative research and better facilitate quality teaching in the sciences for medical undergraduates (12-14).


  1.  The BMA welcomes the Select Committee's inquiry into strategic science provision in English Universities. We are particularly pleased to note the emphasis on the need for a strategic approach; we believe there is a need for something more than a reliance on market forces alone.

  2.  There is an intrinsic link between an academic science sector that is in robust health and a successful and world-leading medical research base in the UK. The fortunes of scientific and medical research and application are in many ways inter-dependent, and we would urge the Select Committee to consider this key issue as part of their investigation and recommendations.


  3.  Medical breakthroughs often flow from collaboration between departments of science and medicine. Closures of science departments will cut off access to the range of knowledge vital for ground-breaking medical research.

  4.  By way of illustration, one such example of a current collaboration is at Imperial College, where a team is currently investigating the mechanisms of anaesthesia, one team member working on the physical principles of molecular systems and the other on the clinical effects.

  5.  Another is at Liverpool University, where physicists and other scientists have provided expert advice to medical academic staff in solving issues of joint wear in prosthetics. Without this expertise in metal interactions and alloys, tendon reconstruction and joint replacement being available, the consequent advances in healthcare would not have been possible.

  6.  Similar examples of collaboration underpin much of the expansion of the UK and international medical knowledge base, which has delivered many of the improvements to healthcare (both in terms of cost and effectiveness) which today are taken for granted; the development and implementation of imaging technology, such as MRI scanners and laser treatments would not have been possible without strong university departments of physics. Exploring the potential benefits of nanotechnologies for healthcare will rely on collaboration between medical academic staff and experts in the material and pharmaceutical sciences, amongst others.


  7.  The Association is concerned about the potentially negative impact the closure of chemistry departments will have on the numbers of chemistry graduates.

  8.   Chemistry graduates are vital to medicine for many reasons, but perhaps most notably:

    —  They teach chemistry at secondary schools to the next generation of medical students; Chemistry "A" level is still a requirement for entry to most medical undergraduate courses.

    —  They are essential partners in supporting medical research capability, particularly in laboratory based research.

  9.  We are therefore anxious about the closures or reconfigurations of chemistry departments; in The Times Higher Education Supplement (28 January), it was reported that Leicester was to make significant cuts to its staff numbers in Chemistry, with concerns raised about the long-term viability of the subject.


  10.  Applied microbiology is an area of key importance to medicine, be it in combating MRSA or developing vaccines; there are a whole host of other public health applications. Yet the training of microbiologists is under threat. We are informed by colleagues in the Society for Applied Microbiology for example that the pressure on university budgets has meant that less and less practical teaching is taking place in what is a relatively expensive subject, and that as a result there are increasing numbers of graduates who do not have the basic skills to become microbiologists. This will undoubtedly impact on the practice of pathology and important research into disease.

  11.  Anatomy and physiology are also being lost. In some cases this is because of curriculum redesign, but the intended alternative method of teaching anatomy, radiology, is also facing cuts due to funding pressures, often the consequence of the Research Assessment Exercise.


  12.  The BMA is in favour of a strong regional capacity in medical teaching and research, to facilitate expansion in doctor numbers and extend the boundaries of knowledge and inquiry amongst greater numbers of medics. We are also aware of public health research projects being run at medical schools which are tailored to serving the needs of the people in their immediate vicinity, such as a recent study into the incidence of diabetes amongst the Asian community, which is of clear benefit to the local populations. By extension, not least because of the importance of collaborative and mutually beneficial work outlined above, we also support regional capacity in the sciences.

  13.  Because much collaboration is still done through physical meetings, either by formal or informal networking, a regional capacity in science is necessary to support the strength of medical research and teaching in the local medical school, and vice versa.

  14.  A striking example in respect of the importance of regional capacity is again provided by anaesthesia. The vast majority of academic departments of anaesthesia in London have been closed within the last decade; three remain, from 12 in 1997. In a recent case, when a coroner wanted an opinion regarding an aspect of anaesthesia, he had only one academic expert which he could call upon to provide advice. Academic experts in science and medicine are undoubtedly required every day by both the public services and private concerns.

January 2005

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 11 April 2005