Leaders say harm from ‘destructive’ research cuts will last years

UK scientific heavyweights unite to condemn massive cuts to overseas research and urge rethink on potential UKRI reductions

March 30, 2021
Africa, universities on the African continent need greater connections, a summit panel hears
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Some of the UK’s most senior scientists have condemned “destructive” cuts to international research projects and warned that “terrifying” reductions in research spending of up to £2 billion a year would be “catastrophic” for the country’s research sector.

Speaking at a journalists’ briefing organised by the Science Media Centre, Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said the recent decision to slash tens of millions of pounds from international research projects funded by overseas development assistance (ODA) funds highlighted a “gap between aspirations and actions” regarding the UK’s stated aim to become a “science superpower”.

Almost £300 million will be cut from the collective budget of the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund in 2021-22 – a 70 per cent reduction – leading many existing overseas projects to be scrapped, it was announced by UK Research and Innovation earlier this month.

Sir Adrian told the online event on 30 March that the cuts endangered many research projects crucial to tackling various global challenges that were now being undertaken by UK researchers in partnership with those in the developing world.

“A lot of that [ODA] budget really does channel into serious and important scientific work – purifying drinking water in Rwanda, capturing CO2 in Zimbabwe, local forecasting of climate change in South Africa, using genetics to improve wheat in Nigeria,” explained Sir Adrian, whose organisation received some £21 million in ODA-related research funds last year.

“If we want to be a science superpower and want a new form of global Britain, everyone recognises the potential importance of using science and innovation to [bolster] economic and diplomatic power – what we have done, either by accident or intent, in terms of the ODA cuts and the impact, for example, on the Royal Society working with African scientists…does not cohere with the overall aspiration [to be a science superpower],” said Sir Adrian.

“We work in a geopolitical climate where we have competitors, and I think the decision to cut researchers in Africa will be noticed in a capital some thousands of miles away.”

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s largest biomedical research institute, drew attention to the potential cuts to up to £1 billion to UK science if the Treasury does not provide additional money to pay for association to Horizon Europe, which, before Brexit, was covered as part of the UK’s contribution to the European Union’s budget.

“Some of the cuts that we have been hearing about would be catastrophic, even existential – it will drive scientists elsewhere, it will destroy networks and it will damage the UK’s soft power by affecting connections across the world,” he said.

“None of this makes any sense,” said Sir Paul, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2001, adding: “I am sure the prime minister and the chancellor when they really pay attention to this will see that what they have to do is to maintain, indeed increase, the funding of science – it is no good talking the talk unless you also walk the walk as well.”

“Science doesn’t need just words – it needs support as well,” he concluded.

Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, described the potential cut of £1 billion-plus to UKRI funding from April – which could rise to up to £2 billion in subsequent financial years – as “really terrifying”, noting that it would also be “disastrous” for private R&D spending, given that studies show that for every £1 of public investment in science, industry contributes another £1.15 to £1.60.

Professor Buckingham also condemned the sudden withdrawal of UKRI funds to overseas projects, with principal investigators being asked to wind up projects quickly given the £120 million shortfall in funding following the new allocation by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose aid funding has been slashed by about £5 billion after a post-Covid spending review.

“Stop-start investment is destructive,” explained Professor Buckingham, who said “research programmes take time – years, not days or weeks – to set up and run.”

“Stopping projects halfway through is incredibly wasteful – all the investment is lost, not just projects, but people and jobs too. And once you lose research capacity, it takes a very long time to rebuild, so we will lose ground on other countries,” said Professor Buckingham.

Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the briefing that his institution would be “disproportionately affected” by the ODA cuts because of its focus on preventing disease internationally, including Covid, with clinical trials and prevention strategies likely to be scrapped.

He explained that researchers faced an “ethical problem” if their clinical trials were defunded because “it is not just that by stopping a trial…you do not have meaningful results, but there is a duty to continue it, vis-à-vis the patients”, who were, in one case, receiving a vaccine against cervical cancer.

“In east Africa, this is a huge problem for women,” said Professor Piot, who added that projects to prevent malaria in west Africa and prevent tuberculosis in children were also at risk.

One young African scientist awarded a Royal Society scholarship run by his institution was told that the grant had been cancelled with just two weeks’ notice, Professor Piot added.

“These are the best of the best [young scientists in Africa], and they get a letter telling them it is over,” he said, adding that the “reputational damage is huge”.

“If these funds are not restored, the damage could be irreversible – it will take years to restore what has been affected. What is at stake is not just the credibility of our promises but the whole science enterprise,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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