Spending review: research deal bodes well for UK science

Global Challenges Fund could be enabler of world-class science tackling global issues, says Malcolm von Schantz

November 30, 2015

Last Wednesday was a good day for research in the UK. There had been considerable nervousness within the research community as to whether new hands Jo Johnson and Sajid Javid get it, in the way that they knew that David Willetts and Vince Cable did, and would protect the research budget.

The spending review showed us that they do get it. And crucially, the chancellor of the exchequer gets it as well. Current modes of research funding in the UK are protected in real terms, and will rise by £500 million. And no less than £1.5 billion (over five years) will be channelled through a new Global Challenges Fund, that will “ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries whilst developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”.

Cynics will note that this allows the government to double-count the same money as research spending and Overseas Development Assistance. In a well-informed comment in Times Higher Education, David Matthews explores this perspective further. But there is also no doubt that this development reflects a clear understanding that we are operating in a globalised world in which researchers move around and collaborate internationally, and where the problems they are studying are global in nature.

Climate change, pandemics and multiresistant bacteria do not respect national boundaries. Whatever societal, medical or biological issues we are studying, they will have relevance on other continents as well. The prime minister (and president Obama) recognised this when they announced the Global Innovation Initiative a few years ago “to support multilateral research collaboration to address global challenges”. Funded by this scheme, scientists in the UK and the US are working together in collaboration with colleagues from Brazil, China, India and Indonesia on issues related to energy environment, and climate change, urban development, agriculture, food security and water, and global health.

My own research team is supported from one of these grants, working on global health issues together with colleagues in Chicago and São Paulo. Our Global Innovation Initiative funding enables us to work together across boundaries in ways that would not otherwise have been possible, and helps us to contribute to the creation of a globally mobile talent pool of young scientists.

We do not yet know what the Global Challenges Fund will look like, but it seems clear that its annual budget will be more than 100 times the British contribution to the Global Innovation Initiative. The potential of this scheme as an enabler of world-class science tackling global issues is enormous. There is also every reason to hope that, in doing so, it will create vast synergies with international collaborations and international funding agencies. The cadre of globally mobile scientists will grow further, and the UK will be the main hub in this.

In a recent article in the Swedish press, the leaders of the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education praised the strong examples set by UK universities in building ambitious international strategies and international networks. The UK is viewed as a pioneer in academic internationalisation.

The strategic efforts made by many British universities in building strategic international partnerships are already bearing fruit both in terms of concrete deliverables such as high-impact publications and valuable exchange opportunities for students and scientific trainees. The partnerships, contacts, collaborations, and agreements for streamlined exchange of staff and students that are already in place will be key to building and implementing the universities’ answers to the chancellor’s global challenge. It will be a tremendously exciting time for British science and British universities.

Malcolm von Schantz was formerly associate dean (international) and acting pro-vice chancellor (international relations) at the University of Surrey, and is currently reader in molecular neurobiology at the institution. He holds a visiting appointment at the University of São Paulo.

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