Swapping Science for Politics: Conservative Party Conference under the microscope

BHF-funded researcher, Dr Peter Noy from the University of Birmingham, joined our Policy and Public Affairs team at Conservative Party Conference to talk to MPs and ministers about the importance of government support for medical research. Here, he tells us about the experience and what he learned.

Dr Peter Noy (second from left) with Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (centre), BHF Chief Executive, Simon Gillespie (right) and BHF Public Affairs Manager, Susannah Kerr (left).

2016 was arguably the year of politics. Political stories hitting the headlines throughout. Brexit. Second female Prime Minister in the UK. Trump. But this was my first experience of a political party conference and I was slightly nervous about what would be involved.

Upon arrival, the scale of the Conservative party conference hit me. This is a massive operation! There were several layers of security with hundreds of police surrounding the venue, activists outside chanting and a din of conference goers humming in the background. Once in the venue there was a vibrant buzz. I attended on the second day (the first contained a few talks but the exhibitor hall hadn’t opened), and the attendees were clearly enthused about the day’s schedule.

I went straight through to the BHF stand and introduced myself to the public affairs team. The entire team were lovely and made me feel comfortable with them and the stand. The day started off slowly, which allowed me a chance to get to know the game on display and some of the key points the team wanted to get across. However, interest and activity built up throughout the day and there were often points when all the team would be busy talking to people and getting the message across that the BHF funds vital medical research that benefits the health and wealth of the country.

Talking research

The majority of people I spoke to wanted to know what I was working on — I was wearing a lab coat which often started the conversation. Our research focuses on controlling the cells that line our blood vessels. These cells, called endothelial cells, control the build-up of plaque for people with heart disease. But we are interested in the differences between endothelial cells where plaque is found and endothelial cells where no plaque is found. Ultimately, we hope that we can exploit these differences to prevent plaque build up.

This was normally followed with a question about whether I thought my work would lead to lives saved and of course this is what we are working hard to achieve. A lot of the time speaking about my research was a starting point that allowed people to talk about how the BHF had touched their lives and the lives of people they knew who had been affected by heart disease.

This was one of the most rewarding parts of the day — seeing people’s passion for the work that I do. It makes you realise that we are all working towards a better future and your work could affect people and their lives in ways you could never imagine.

However, there were also some odd questions: one woman asked me if I wanted to research her! Her doctors had been unable to diagnose why she was fainting so often and she wanted to know the reason for it, which was an interesting conversation. It was also nice to meet several MPs and ministers, many of whom we had long chats with and were interested in hearing about the work of the BHF.

A conference attendee learns about the BHF game, which aims to illustrate the journey that medical research goes on to get from lab bench to lives saved (bedside).

Getting competitive to explain research funding

The medical research funding game that we had on the stand was a fantastic starting point for this. The game challenged players to race against the clock to make a breakthrough discovery by guiding their research (represented by a marble) through the many hurdles that research can encounter on the journey from bench to bedside. MPs, exhibitors and attendees alike were all super competitive, with some returning hourly to improve their time.

Talking about navigating the funding landscape for medical research might not be a popular topic for social occasions but for three days in September Tory party conference attendees were immersed in it. Crossing the “Valley of Death” (translating your research), leveraging industry funding and progressing through clinical trials were the main hurdles of the game, as they are in the real world.

But many also stumbled aligning government, charity and international funding sources right at the beginning, and this is the challenge of research — it very rarely goes smoothly from start to finish.

The reality

Developing life changing research can be a struggle, every idea takes a slightly different route (some ideas take 20 years and others take 50+), but ultimately with perseverance and passion all research contributes to building a stronger, healthier nation and charities such as the BHF are at the heart of this.

Business Secretary, Greg Clark struggles to line up government, charity and international funding at the start of the game.

About the BHF Policy and Public Affairs Team

Many decisions that are made in government are vitally important to the UK’s ability to conduct research — from the amount of money that is invested in science, to access to European research programmes, to the rules around accessing health data.

The BHF Policy and Public Affairs Team want to make sure that the decisions made in government support researchers to carry out their work and enable BHF-funded research to have the maximum possible impact for people affected by heart and circulatory disease.

Researchers play an important role in our work — helping us to identify and illustrate barriers to research and to engage with decision makers. We are always looking for researchers who would like to take part in specific policy and influencing activities, such as attending a parliamentary event or lending their story to a BHF consultation response.

So if you’re interested in getting involved, please get in touch at policy@bhf.org.uk