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Here Be Dragons

The Government Have Hired a Man to Sell Your DNA

Hopefully George Freeman, the new Minister for Life Sciences, isn't an incompetent prick.

Police stop students smashing David Willetts' car to smithereens (Photo by Jake Lewis)

With a general election looming in May, a lesser writer might describe Cameron’s reshuffle with some tired cliché like "rearranging the deck chairs on the Costa Concordia". Luckily, I’m above such things, but with nine months and zero budgets left between now and May 2015, it’s hard to see what kind of difference the shiny new men and women omnishambling their way into the spotlight this week are going to make to, well, anything really.


Of course this reshuffle isn’t really about doing anything now, it’s about the kind of party David Cameron wants to lead to the polls come election time. In broad terms that seems to mean more women and less Europe, but for science fans one of the most intriguing changes is the fact that we now have not one but two ministers tinkering with the science brief. The question is, why?

Until last week, David Willetts held the post of Minister for Universities and Science. Nicknamed "two brains" by respectful hacks, Willetts had a lot of cross-party appeal thanks to his stance on things like baby boomers (just before the last election he wrote a book accusing them of thriving at the expense of their children) and his vigorous defence of science funding, preserving the budget even as departments around him were slashed.

Campaign groups like Science is Vital and the Campaign for Science and Engineering were quick to express their sorrow at his departure, a man known for understanding the importance of a strong scientific community to a modern economy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so loved for the "universities" part of his brief – presiding over an epic hiking of tuition fees didn’t exactly endear him to Britain’s students.

Now he’s gone, and not one but two men have taken his place – one for each of his big throbbing brains. Greg Clark becomes Minister for Science, Universities and Cities, while George Freeman takes over a surprise new role, the Minister for Life Sciences – a role so unexpected that even campaign groups like CASE don’t appear to have noticed or reacted to it.


At first glance, this looks like an expansion, but it’s actually more a fragmentation. Freeman’s role isn’t new exactly, he was already the Government Advisor on Life Sciences before this appointment. What’s changed is that where before he worked beneath the science minister, leading the Government’s life science strategy under David Willetts, now the role has become ministerial in its own right. Basically, a big chunk of the life sciences has been stripped from the science minister and handed its own special place in government, so in effect we now have a minister for DNA studies.

George Freeman MP, pictured right (Photo via)

We’ve long known that David Cameron has a bit of a hard-on for biology. “Life sciences is a jewel in the crown of our economy,” he said back in 2011, in a speech so passionate he managed to quote Gandhi, “It has consistently shown stronger growth than the UK as a whole, it accounts for 165,000 UK jobs and it totals over £50 billion in turnover.” Mmm, lovely lovely money. “…if we’re going to build this more outward-looking, this more export-driven economy, then life sciences has got to play a big part in that.”

To achieve that, Cameron wants to see more partnerships between scientists and commercial partners – not necessarily a bad thing – and a more commercially-minded NHS, which is likely to ring alarm bells. “The most fundamental thing we’re doing is opening up the NHS to new ideas because time and again we’ve heard the same thing from industry. We’ve got the treatments that work, we’ve proved they’re safe, they’ve been approved but we cannot get them into the NHS.”


Enter Freeman, king of the life sciences, whose elevated role gives him even more clout to make these public-private partnerships happen. The PHG Foundation describe his role more clearly than most: “A strong proponent for patient empowerment, scientific and medical progress via big data typified by genome sequence and linked clinical data, he is well positioned with his new role to realise the Prime Minister’s ambition of harnessing the NHS and genomics as a source of revenue for the UK via Genomics England.”

Genomics England, a £100million company set up by the Department of Health, is an ambitious plan that aims to do in the UK what 23AndMe have achieved globally – create a huge data resource for commercial genomics research. They’ve been tasked with sequencing the genomes of 100,000 Brits between now and the end of 2017. That means building a giant store containing detailed records of the DNA of thousands of Britons, and selling access to companies who want to use information about our genes to make new products or services. The data will be stored in some kind of vaguely-defined NHS system behind a firewall, yet accessible to numerous researchers and companies. It’s a vast undertaking, and it’s not entirely surprising that the government’s man responsible has seen his post elevated as a result.

It’s hard to know what exactly to make of this. On the one hand, I’ve argued in the past that academics face irrelevance if they don’t have access to the kind of data that commercial companies are able to accumulate. When companies like 23AndMe are the only sources of data for genomic research, how can other scientists independently test their claims and findings? From that perspective, the idea of the UK government investing heavily in a genomics data resource makes a lot of sense.

But then we come back to the Care.Data debacle, a government plan to open NHS data up to researchers that collapsed earlier this year amid a culture of chronic arrogance and incompetence. NHS England utterly failed to communicate plans to patients, to gain public consent, to describe a coherent policy on how the data would be used, or to provide assurances that IT systems put in place would meet the most basic levels of security to stop people's genetic data being stolen.

A major part of Freeman’s upgraded job is, presumably, to stop a similar debacle happening around the NHS’s genomic data, and schedules are pretty damned tight. It could be a short but interesting nine months, and hopefully journalists will be watching very carefully.


Previously – Listen Idiots: Gingers Are Not Being Wiped Out by Climate Change