Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 616-619)




  616. Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming along to this session. We are aware that everyone is under pressure and that certain people need to get away, but I will deal with that very briefly. I wonder if for the record you could introduce yourselves and indicate your association, and if there is any opening comment anyone wishes to make, either collectively or individually, now is the time to do it.

  (Mr Spittle) Good morning. I am Graham Spittle. I am Vice President and Director of the Hursley Laboratory for IBM. My role is an engineering development one. I am responsible for the software development for IBM of a specific set of products worldwide, for all the development activity in the UK and the WEBSPHERE software development activity in labs in Europe.
  (Dr Catchpole) I am Mike Catchpole. I am Deputy Director at CDSC, the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, and the Director for the PHLS IMT programme. I am a public health epidemiologist by training and have worked for the last 10-12 years at the national Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre.
  (Sir John Pattison) I am John Pattison. I am the Director of Research Analysis and information at the Department of Health, England, and also Director of Research and Development at that same Department. I am on secondment from University College , London, where I have a Chair of Medical Microbiology.
  (Dr Paton) I am James Paton. I am a consultant microbiologist at Queens Hospital, Burton upon Trent, where I am also their Director of Clinical Informatics, and for the last year or so I have also been involved with the NHS Information Authority, both with the development of the electronic health record across communities, the pilots for that, and also with the implementation of a common terminology in clinical terms, which we may refer to again this morning.

  617. Also for the record, we note that Sir John is appearing before the Committee on behalf of Richard Granger, Head of the National Health Service Information Technology. So welcome. Are there any opening comments anyone would wish to make? No. Knowing how people are pushed for time, we are going to start with question 9, and this is somewhat directed to Sir John. How can the NHS Research and Development strategy best support the development of public health-related research, particularly as relating to communicable disease control?
  (Sir John Pattison) I wonder if I could just make some introductory remarks specifically on this question. The NHS R&D funding is one of two elements of funding that is available for R&D to the Department of Health. The other is the Policy Research Programme of the Department. I labour that point because it is through the latter historically that we have funded much of the public health R&D. That programme, the Policy Research Programme, has supported a significant programme of public health-related research for many years now, and our current estimate is that approximately £10 million per annum is spent on that research, in three broad areas, the first being the prevention of disease and the promotion of improved health and well-being through such mechanisms as improved diet and lifestyle, and by tackling the wider determinants of health related to socio-economic status, the so-called "inequalities agenda." The second is to minimise the impact of physical stresses caused by the environment, by man-made hazards or by health interventions themselves. The third is the protection of the public from diseases caused by a range of pathogens, which I think is your specific interest today. Currently, the Policy Research Programme is funding a major research activity in a number of areas, but most particularly HIV AIDS, anti-microbial resistance and BSE/CJD. In addition to the policy research programme, and thinking of government bodies, of course, the Public Health Laboratory Service and the Centre for Applied Microbiological Research has over recent years undertaken research in many related areas, and I have a list of them here which I can supply if you wish in writing to the Committee. The new Health Protection Agency comes into existence on 1 April 2003, and it was notable in the document Getting Ahead of the Curve that there was a clear statement that the research strategy of that new organisation would be under the purview of the director of R&D at the Department of Health, and the purpose of that, of course, is both to direct on the basis, I think—though this is not yet agreed—of the usual quinquennial review of their research strategy, and secondly, to make sure that it is coherent with the research strategies of other bodies working in this area. I think there is general agreement to that, and I have had discussions already with Bill Stewart and with Charles Penn, who is the acting R&D Director of that organisation. It is clear, of course, that two of those, the constituent organisations or the former organisations, PHLS and CAMR, are very much related to infection and infection control. A word then about vaccine research supported by the Department of Health, which is one way of controlling communicable diseases. We have current research programmes funded by the Department, which again I can supply you with a list of, but it includes bacterial meningitis and pneumonia, measles, influenza, influenza vaccination programmes, molecular epidemiology, tuberculosis, and the efficacy of BCG, and support currently for the Edward Jenner Institute of Vaccine Research. Again, I will happily send that list in writing to the Committee. In terms of the precise question you have asked, which is how can the strategy best support the development of public health-related research, particularly in communicable disease control, I think that our first task is to have this review of the various strategies of the various bodies that are going to be contributing to this, and it is our experience that we will undoubtedly reveal there overlaps in our current research programmes, which should not be there, and gaps in our current research programmes. Communicable disease control we can split up into a number of elements, from prevention right through to diagnosis and treatment, and we have research projects in each of those, and I have described some of them. We would be looking to try and ensure that between the Health Protection Agency and the Department of Health Policy Research Programme, bearing in mind what the MRC and other research councils are doing and what major charities are supporting to cover the necessary microbiology. In relation to the rest of our agenda today, we have the bio-informatics that might need to go with the most effective surveillance systems that we can put in place in this country.

  618. In your list of important entities—HIV, anti-microbial resistance, CJD—would that be the rank order of importance as you mentioned them, or is there a rank order that you would give to these?
  (Sir John Pattison) It would be very difficult to say that HIV AIDS is more important than anti-microbial resistance, which is more important than CJD/BSE. I should say really it is CJD, because DEFRA take care of the animal research on that. They have all, for very obvious reasons, I suppose, thrust themselves up the priority list and have to be dealt with as initially emerging infections in the case of HIV AIDS and CJD, and there is an imperative to do research in that area. Similarly, anti-microbial resistance is increasing. I think there is no evidence that I know of that we are controlling that problem, and it merits further research.

  619. One thing I did not do was declare any interest in this meeting, and the anti-microbial resistance gives me the opportunity to declare an interest as Chairman of the House of Lords Committee that reported about three years ago, and also as an Emeritus Professor of Animal Pathology in the University of Cambridge. Though it is not directly related to IT, CAMR is disappointed to learn that the Minister of Health is not terribly interested, in fact not interested at all, to develop a vaccine facility at Porton Down. Have you any comments on that?
  (Sir John Pattison) I have not been involved in that discussion or in that thinking. I cannot really comment, no.

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