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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Austerity and Tecnological Decloine

Today's news includes the item that 'big pharma', the leading pharmaceutical companies that spend billions of pounds on research and develop new treatments are threatening to leave the UK. The headline is that they say the National Health Service is underspending by at least £20 billion a year, which means they are either refusing to buy some drugs at all, or strictly rationing the patients to whom some new drugs are administered. The economic effect of this parsimony is that the companies are not getting the return they require on the money they invest in research. In other countries [the richer Commonwealth, the more affluent EU states and the USA and other aggressively capitalist countries where the wealthy are big spenders on health care] the greater spending by the medical professions provides more data for the drug companies to use in the verification and development of new treatments.

The threat from the drugs firms need not be taken too seriously, in the short term, because the factors that keep the pharmacological teams in the UK are the size and quality of medical schools and related scientific communities in the universities, the very good lifestyle available in Britain and the availability of good quality personnel. But there could be an eventual drift of such researchers away from Britain if those environmental advantages are lost in a continued downward spiral of social and economic degeneration. That will happen if the fundamentals of policy are not changed: and that will only happen when the impedimenta of Economics is removed from official thinking.

Government spending has for many centuries been the basis of much [if not most] major technological development. The needs of the Royal Navy for navigational tools led to the construction of the first Royal Observatory, from which much wider developments of astronomy were derived. Efficient timekeeping was needed for the discovery of where a ship was, hence the search for wholly efficient chronometers to make the calculation of longitude a simple everyday task for naval officers - then for merchant seamen. From the seventeenth century until the twentieth naval dockyards were among the biggest employers in the country, and the national determination to keep the navy [then also the air force] at the forefront of international comparison led to thousands of innovations which could then be spun-off to commercial applications. In this new century, a major factor in the US predominance in technology is the massive spending on research and development by the US government, to maintain supremacy in terrestrial conflict and in the space race.

Britain was the first front-runner in this contest for the best in military technology. Peter the Great of Russia notoriously spent a year in Deptford learning the techniques of building, equipping and arming warships in the eighteenth century, then went back to Russia to found his own great port and create the navy that enabled him to break Sweden's hegemony in the Baltic. Charles II, like Peter of Russia, was fascinated by all the gadgets that were unveiled to the Royal Society that he created; and countries all over the world have developed derivative science academies. The close engagement of the state in the development of science and technology has been crucial, both in funding the research and in giving prestige to the achievers. Cameron-Osborne austerity is stripping away Britain's capacity to compete in this area, and this will soon produce a calamity of historical proportions. The time for a fundamental policy is change is very limited.  

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