By Lea Milligan, CEO of MQ Mental Health Research
On the 7th of February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the formation of a new ministry: the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). According to the new Secretary of State leading the ministry, Michelle Donelan, this department will “spur stronger growth, better jobs and bold new discoveries.”
According to Donelan, the new department will bring together the government’s oversite of five technologies: Quantum, AI, engineering biology, semiconductors and future telecoms – along with life sciences and green technologies, into one single department.
But what does this new ministry mean for investments into mental health research?
The last year has been the most turbulent in UK politics within living memory. Three Prime Ministers, four chancellors and endless changes to the Cabinet hasn’t exactly led to the clearest communications when it comes to national investments in research, or a strategy for mental health.
That said, there has been some good news. In November, the government announced a new £113 million fund for research into different health issues. The four healthcare missions, which would see funding for new research into cancer, obesity, addiction and mental health, led to a £40.2 million investment into new research centres to specifically develop and roll out new digital technologies for mental health patients. We expect the announcement of the first demonstrator sites imminently.
Investments like this, across different health conditions, is a positive step as not only does it take the ‘mind, body, brain’ approach to research and healthcare that MQ has long been advocating for, but, alongside the new department’s overseeing of both life sciences and engineering biology, this sees the government taking a multi-disciplinary approach to research too.
Nicola Perrin, CEO, Association of Medical Research Charities said:
“We are glad that the Government has heard calls from the sector for a new department focusing on Science, Innovation and Technology. Having a single science department means that there can be a focus on the whole research ecosystem, working with all the diverse partners including universities, industry and charities. We are looking forward to seeing a new joined up approach to science and innovation from Government.”
For the last ten years, MQ has worked to convene the mental health science sector. Bringing together different scientific disciplines such as neuroscience, genetics, psychology, psychiatry and data science, as well as engaging the different stakeholder groups such as researchers, practitioners and the experts by lived and living experience.
It is positive to see the collaborative approach pioneered by MQ being reflected in Government policy.
However, this positive step seemed to be undermined by the lack of any real detail into what the new departments decision-making ability will be, or if any more funds will be made available for mental health research.
Professor Dame Anne Johnson, President, Academy of Medical Sciences, said:
“In the Autumn Statement, the Government reasserted its commitment to put research at the centre of plans for growth. Research and development drives innovation, creates high-skilled jobs in high-growth industries and, importantly, improves the nation’s health. Building on the Government’s commitment to UK R&D, we urgently need to resolve and strengthen our position within the international funding landscape.
The scientific community strongly believes that association to the Horizon Europe funding programme is best for research in the UK and in Europe, and will improve health for all. We urge the new Secretary of State to seize the opportunity to secure this outcome. It will send a strong message that the UK is open for business and remains a premier destination to work on health research that improves lives.”
As well as this lack of detail, the government has also demonstrated it is not committed to improving the nations mental health despite a clear and desperate need.
The draft mental health bill which is working its way through parliament currently has been criticised for not ensuring that statutory early intervention services be made available for children, despite this being included in the original green paper and the overwhelming evidence of its effectiveness.
Last month, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay, announced that they were scrapping the long awaited 10-year mental health plan and replacing it with a new 5-year ‘Major Conditions Strategy’ for a number of health conditions including dementia, cancer and respiratory diseases. An announcement that was met with dismay from many mental health charities and raised far more questions than it answered.
A positive path forwards
Despite this seemingly mixed messaging from the Government on the importance of mental health research, the reaction to the announcement for the new government department has been generally regarded in a positive light.
However, with the lack of focus from the government on the importance of good mental health to the nation, and with an election within the next 18 months, it is a cautious welcome from the sector that Michelle Donelan is receiving.
“It is good to see a dedicated post of science minister again, and good too that it is someone with experience of this area as previous Universities’ minister. She is undoubtedly aware of the problems Brexit has caused higher education and science and the importance of encouraging foreign students and staff to come to the UK. What we need, as well as an understanding of these problems, is a period of stability: ministers need to be able to learn their brief and the science and research portfolio, in particular, needs stable leadership rather than musical chairs.”
Prof John Hardy, Professor of Neuroscience, UCL.