UK biomedical research is currently the best in Europe, despite receiving relatively low levels of public funding. This is due partly to the excellence of the country’s top universities and partly to the thousands of non-UK citizens working in them.
Unfortunately, according to a recent survey by YouGov for the University and College Union, more than 75 per cent of academics who came to the UK from the rest of the European Union are more likely to consider leaving following the Brexit vote. In that context, it is all the more vital that the government develop a clear vision for maintaining the excellence that drew those people across the English Channel in the first place.
The UK’s reputation in medical science is based largely on its outstanding performance in basic research. But Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser and the first chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, the new body overseeing research, has contended in recent years that support for “research by curiosity” (which means basic research), especially in the life sciences, should be reduced, in favour of more applied medical research – in which UK performance is currently lacklustre in comparison with nations such as Germany, the US or Israel.
I have some sympathy with that view, but we need to be very careful. Without a productive pipeline of original discoveries coming from fundamental research, we risk having very little to translate and nothing novel to sell. It is impossible to guess where groundbreaking discoveries leading to revolutionary applications for medicine will come from. Hence, the most efficient strategy is to continue providing a large range of opportunities for world-class scientists to carry out both basic and applied science.
In this regard, the government’s failure in its recent Brexit White Paper to commit to maintaining UK membership of the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme was disappointing. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, seems keen to allow it, but I fear that the UK government may prefer to keep the tightest possible tight control on UK science spending by funnelling it all through UKRI.
This would be all the more worrying given the power that UKRI will already have over UK science funding. Its “top-down” set-up has worried a science community used to funds being given to the best researchers rather than to those whose proposals best match the government’s plans. Nor are UK medical researchers keen to become internationally isolated; that is always deleterious when methodologies and patient cohorts need to come from a vast array of countries.
Of course, there has always been an element of political control over the “directive” elements of research council budgets, but it is crucial that the balance not be tipped too far in the direction of translation. The government’s new industrial strategy is worrying in this regard. According to January’s green paper on “Building Our Industrial Strategy”, the life sciences are one of its priority areas.
One of the objectives is to increase innovation in academia and the NHS, with no overall increase in spending. But I say again that without well-funded, risky basic research, there can be no medical progress. And, paradoxically, the most effective scientists in translational research are likely to be the most productive basic ones, who really know what is promising in their own studies. These scientists could easily mobilise a small, cost-efficient team to drive the quick translation of their most promising findings. The challenge for the government is, therefore, to create a system encouraging these world-class scientists to commit part of their time to the less glorious but more altruistic – and possibly, secondarily, more lucrative – task of applying their science.
Technical innovation is driven by efforts to answer specific scientific questions, before someone realises that these developments can be extended to other fields. Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics after coming back from a holiday to find a peculiar fungus growing on samples of the bacteria he was studying. A modest example from my own laboratory also illustrates this point. While working on rare mutations and chromosome abnormalities contributing to diabetes and obesity, we developed highly cost-efficient protocols for identifying these genetic defects. After discussions with medical geneticists, we realised that our protocols could revolutionise the expensive and laborious way the diagnosis of thousands of genetic disorders is currently carried out.
So while the government is right to promote the translation of the best fruits of basic research for the benefit of the public and industry, it should do so by offering the best scientists a simple, quick and non-bureaucratic source of short-term funding to do so. In some respects, the European Research Council’s “proof of concept” grants, designed to promote the translation of basic discoveries made by its grantees, is an example that could be followed.
It is also worth noting that the ultimate success of this strategy does not depend on academia. Rather, it depends on the notoriously conservative NHS implementing the resulting innovations. And that may be the riskiest bet of all.