Mystery over the Multimillion Mesothelioma Grant
It is disappointing but not surprising that an April 13, 2016 response to parliamentary questions1 regarding the establishment of a National Mesothelioma Centre of Excellence was suggestive of yet more secret deals and collusion at the heart of David Camerons government. The contentious and evasive text tabled by Chief Secretary to the Treasury MP Greg Hands was as follows:
The National Mesothelioma Centre will be a collaboration between four leading institutions who have a major interest in the treatment of mesothelioma: National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI) at Imperial College; Royal Brompton Hospital; Institute of Cancer Research (ICR); and Royal Marsden Hospital. This collaboration will form the hub of the Centre which will engage with all other hospitals in the UK to which mesotheliomas are referred and treated.
Professor Sir Anthony Newton Taylor, Head of Research & Development at the National Heart & Lung Institute, who made the application for support from LIBOR fines, is working closely with the British Lung Foundation and other charities in order to ensure that experts from across the lung and cancer research community are able to contribute to this important enterprise.
The £5 million grant, which is intended as seed funding, has been profiled over 4 years and will be paid to the National Mesothelioma Centre, once established. The funding will be subjected to standard Grant Terms and Conditions, including a feedback and reporting mechanism, and audit.
This multimillion pound gift of taxpayers money to London institutions without prior consultation or dialogue with members of the UKs mesothelioma research community, asbestos victims groups or relevant charities smacks more of old boy backroom deals than the legitimate processes of, what David Cameron called: the most open and transparent [government] in the world.2 In the absence of any explanation for this generosity, we are left to our own devices to speculate just how such munificence came to be bestowed. Perhaps it went like this over brandy and cigars at a private West End club, a Whitehall Mandarin mentioned that his department was looking for a bone to throw to UK veterans in the budget.3 His companion, another Old Etonian, recalled that many former service personnel had contracted asbestos cancer. Why not, he said give some cash to Imperial College, Ive had good reports of them from my godson. Splendid idea, said the other, Lets do it. In the vacuum which exists over how the decision was made to give this pot of money to the Imperial and other institutions in London, when the vast majority of mesothelioma patients live outside the capital, this scenario is as plausible as any.
Whereas on March 22, 2016, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman) had told the House of Commons that Over the coming weeks, we will consider how best to put that £5 million from the Government to work in order to maximise inward investment and build UK leadership in this important centre, just a few weeks later it looked like Imperial et al had bagged the lot.4 In discussions with leading UK mesothelioma researchers not one of them could recall an instance whereby such a large sum had been disbursed in such an off-hand, cursory manner. Whether from government, charity or foundation coffers, in every other situation research grants were subjected to rigorous vetting to ensure that awards were based on merit not favoritism; scientists, victims and taxpayers expect to see a fair quality-driven competition for funding.
There is a desperate need in the UK for translational research not just basic science. The priority must be to find protocols for improving treatments for patients and not facilitating empire building for London-based institutions. Commenting on the ambiguous nature of the funding process, a spokesman for the Asbestos Victims Group Forum noted:
At the moment it is unclear where and how this money will be allocated and that is a major concern. None of the leading mesothelioma researchers, research institutions or charities were consulted before the Budget announcement and were as surprised as anyone to hear the news.
During discussions at the annual All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Asbestos Seminar in the House of Commons on 22 March it was suggested that a decision had already been made by the relevant Minister to award this money to a consortium of institutions led by Imperial College, all based in London. If true, this is a shocking disregard for the existing experience and talent of mesothelioma researchers in the UK. Imperial College may have many fine qualities but they have published little, if any mesothelioma research
The Forum has written to George Freeman MP, the responsible minister, to urge full consultation and an open tender process before any decisions are made about the allocation of the £5 million, or the National Mesothelioma Centre. We need decisions that are made in the best interests of mesothelioma patients, and that requires open consultation with all the best people, not secret backroom deals. 5
The public has a right to know how and why the decision was made to allocate this money without consultation or transparency. Only when the government agrees to replace this unilateral decision with one based on open bids from multiple sources, will the optimal results be achieved.
April 19, 2016
1 Parliamentary questions asked by MP Ian Lucas on April 8, 2016:
Mesothelioma: Written question - 33075
Mesothelioma: Written question - 33076
Mesothelioma: Written question - 33077
2 David Cameron Speech. Open Government Partnership. 2015.
3 Budget 2016. March 16, 2016.
4 Hansard. Mesothelioma Research. March 22, 2016.
5 Asbestos Victims Groups welcome £5 million pledged for a National Mesothelioma Centre but argue for full consultation and open tenders before funds allocated. March 30, 2016.