Science, superstition and the future of health

Science, superstition and the future of health

It was my 47th birthday last week and the thought of being so close to the half century made me grumpy. But this Tuesday’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture, by president of the Royal Society Sir Paul Nurse, persuaded me to stop lamenting my lost youth and to be grateful. His subject was science and the contribution it makes to our lives – with much reference to medicine and health. One of his key points was that life expectancy back in 1912 was around 50 but now, thanks to many phenomenal advances, it’s around 80.

Sir Paul said it was only thanks to the NHS team which performed a quadruple bypass in January that he was still alive and able to deliver his talk. Science made this possible. It is also the only hope we have to tackle the great challenges of climate change, fossil fuel depletion, food shortages, and a rapidly growing population. In global terms there is a particular need for science to help provide for the growing numbers of people with long-term and chronic conditions, and to ensure that older people get support to lead fuller and healthier lives.

Something that particularly worries me is that it has become acceptable in some quarters to attack science and scientific endeavour – this is astonishingly dangerous. During my PhD research, which was in underwater archaeology, I helped with the excavation of sites from the largely pre-scientific past. To be several metres below the surface of a Scottish loch and handle an artefact which last felt the warmth of a human hand 500 years ago was thrilling. It was also alarming as I was also able to read contemporary accounts of the lives, and deaths, of people from these communities. The rich fared better than the poor, but there was little to envy. Many children died before their first birthday and adults were carried off in their prime by illnesses and injuries which now cause little concern. Indeed, their fates were sometimes sealed by treatments based on tradition and superstition.

It is science and effective research which allowed us to escape the miserable lot of our ancestors and the NHS which ensures (on the whole) that care is distributed to everyone  regardless of wealth or status. But one of the big questions we face is how to ensure that science and healthcare can deliver for the future.

Sir Paul addressed this very issue, pointing to the potential of life sciences and of stem cell research. He stressed that it is essential to understand genetics and their influence on illness, and their interaction with lifestyle and diet. Progress, he believes, can be achieved through an effective partnership between publicly funded science, the NHS and industry. The benefits would not just be for our health, but also to the economy. His ultimate vision is for an NHS which takes full advantage of being a genuinely national service, to become a ‘healthcare producer’ as well as a provider.

Properly resourced and organised, this could provide the NHS with an exciting future and encourage closer, stronger links between scientists and the rest of society. In the meantime I’ll try to be properly grateful for everything that science and the NHS has given me, and the many extra years of life they gave my father. Oh, and even though I’m scared of needles, I’m really, really grateful that GPs have stopped using leeches.

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