Cuts to international research are a wrong turn for a country going global

The UK has an ambitious R&D road map but the necessary steps must be taken by politicians and funding bodies, says Andrew Thompson

April 15, 2021
Cutting an orange painted like a globe representing funding cuts
Source: Getty

At the start of the year, US president-elect Joe Biden wrote a letter to his science adviser, Eric Lander, calling for a reinvigoration of the US’ science and technology strategy.

Biden posed two strikingly similar questions to those asked by Franklin D. Roosevelt of his own science adviser, Vannevar Bush, in his famous 1944 letter. How, in the midst of devastation (caused in this case by the virus), can science and technology enable economic recovery, benefit health and enhance security? And what government structures are needed to harness that power?

Like the US, the UK has suffered one of the worst excess death rates from Covid-19. It is also entering a period of geopolitical reorientation not witnessed since the post-war period. Hence, for UK science, the relevant question is as much about the geography of collaboration as its supporting structures. The prime minister has urged the country to grasp the post-Brexit opportunity to “go global” – but what does this mean?

Putting science and technology at the heart of the UK’s relationships worldwide is a key aim of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published last month. Yet the starting point still has to be Europe. Six of the UK’s top 10 collaborative partners are European: Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain. The European Union’s Horizon programmes give UK science global visibility, supporting ambitious international, interdisciplinary collaborations. And they are the world’s leading mechanism for blue-sky research, whose fruits include the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. The UK hosts more fellows of the flagship European Research Council than any other country except Germany.

Nevertheless, to meet the Integrated Review’s ambition to become a science and technology “superpower” by 2030, the UK must also be a magnet for the brightest minds from further afield. This requires bespoke fellowships across all disciplines and career stages. Unlike Horizon, this “discovery funding” should be in the UK’s own hands and attuned to its own needs, a long-term investment in higher-risk, higher-return ideas.

Going global does not stop there. The drive to strike new trade deals will require a deeper understanding of the dynamics of global markets. With the “fourth industrial revolution” upon us, where data and the digital domain are redefining how we innovate, this understanding will increasingly turn upon science.

Cutting-edge research also attracts inward investment. The volume of R&D expenditure in the UK by foreign-owned companies has risen rapidly for more than a decade, much of it driven by countries outside the EU. Increased funding for international collaboration can help secure more bilateral partnerships, with highly developed economies and larger emerging markets alike.

Finally, for the UK research base to be as impactful as it is productive, we must build capacity to work on global challenges across national boundaries. The scale and complexity of the Covid-19 crisis has taught us that multilateral cooperation is a sine qua non of any exit strategy and it is a similar story for other 21st-century problems, from climate change and energy sustainability, through famine and food security, to human trafficking and modern slavery.

Amid what may be the fastest technological change in history, what is the economy of tomorrow into which governments are trying to move their citizens? In a resource-constrained world, what do human-centred economies look like? Over the past five years, the UK’s pioneering Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) has wrestled with these questions by reconnecting economic with social and environmental issues, and by forging new, more equitable partnerships between northern and southern researchers.

Anticipating the move towards more mission-oriented research, the GCRF is arguably the strongest scientific mechanism that exists to get low- and middle-income countries back on track post-pandemic to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals. Given that variants of the virus will come from the unvaccinated, this type of research funding will be instrumental in accelerating progress in international health research and the worldwide delivery of vaccinations.

UK science has long sat in a global landscape. The government’s R&D Roadmap – pledging to grow science funding to £22 billion by 2024-25 – is nevertheless a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revisit the geography of collaboration. What happens next? Roadmaps, like signposts, don’t walk in the direction they point. We must take the necessary steps ourselves.

There is a real risk of the UK taking an early wrong turn if the cost of Horizon Europe is charged against the existing science budget. The pre-Easter announcement of an extra £250 million to help meet the shortfall is welcome but still leaves a gap between ambition and reality.

The gap will be particularly problematic if deep cuts to official development assistance are visited disproportionally on the GCRF. Rather than being a partner of choice, the UK may suddenly find itself judged risky and unreliable.

Alternatively, if the government stays on course, targeting an uplifted science budget on global talent, markets and challenges, the health of the nation can recover more quickly and its research base can prosper.

Andrew Thompson is professor of global and imperial history at the University of Oxford and a former executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Cuts to international research will stymie the UK’s global ambitions

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