Reality trumps rhetoric

The disconnect between the UK’s ambitions to be a science superpower and threats of cuts to its research base will cause lasting harm

April 1, 2021
Boris Johnson wearing PPE
Source: Getty

“A country can’t become a superpower by assertion alone…and the UK will not prove its science superpower credentials by leaving some of its most promising researchers without a job.”

This simple statement from Sir Anton Muscatelli seems so self-evident that one wonders whether it needs saying at all. But it does, and if the UK government listens to one voice amid the howls of outrage from across UK research, then it would do well to make it Muscatelli’s.

As well as being vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow and past president of the Russell Group, he is a highly respected economist, and made the case in terms that should resonate in government.

“How should we recover from the Covid pandemic, the biggest economic shock in living memory, during which time we are accumulating the most debt as a proportion of GDP since the Second World War? The only answer is investment and productivity growth,” he writes.

The strange background to this is that the government has, until now, been singing largely from the same hymn sheet – promising a golden age for science and clearly marking research and innovation as the bedrock of what it hopes will be a post-pandemic, post-Brexit economic resurgence.

The trouble with this rhetoric is that reality is biting simultaneously.

The budget may have identified innovation, infrastructure and skills as the routes back to prosperity, but as Muscatelli points out, “worrying cracks are starting to appear in the innovation pillar”.

Among the key concerns are cuts to the overseas aid budget that have been handed on to UKRI, forcing it to curtail ongoing research projects funded via the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and Newton Fund, and what is feared (at the time of writing) could be a cut of up to £1 billion to existing research budgets to pay for UK association to Horizon Europe.

Such a reduction has been described by the Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse, in an interview with Times Higher Education, as an “existential threat” to UK research. Square that with those boasts about superpower status.

It is possible, given the time lag involved with print deadlines, that the specifics of this row are already out of date. At the risk of sounding flippant, what is £1 billion when the linchpin of the country’s economic recovery is at stake? But even if sanity prevails, the shambolic disconnect between what the government has been saying and what the research base has been left to face down will do lasting damage.

For those who think truth and fair dealing matter, trust in politics has taken a drubbing in recent years, particularly as Donald Trump rolled out his unique brand of government as showbiz.

Trump is gone from the White House, but there was a timely reminder last week of how poisoned political discourse in the US had become by the time he left office. In a defence filed by a former Trump lawyer, Sidney Powell, against a defamation lawsuit for claims that voting machine operator Dominion was involved in electoral fraud, Powell argued that her assertions were so outrageous that “reasonable people would not accept such statements as fact”. If only that were true (it’s tempting to observe that the word “reasonable” is doing a lot of work there).

This is, it’s worth acknowledging, an extreme case, but one can’t help feeling that there’s a political continuum here that poses huge challenges for those who deal in facts and evidence.

And this culture clash has delivered other jarring blows to universities and science in recent weeks, not least the way in which the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine has been dragged through the gutter for reasons that are hard to fathom and unpick, but in which politics have played far too large a part.

This triumph of science, which is also a triumph of industry and research collaboration for the global public good, should have been an exemplar celebrated by all, not a pawn overshadowed by everything from European electoral concerns and post-Brexit egos to US pharmaceutical profits.

Of course, science can never be entirely divorced from politics, and views will vary about what is and is not appropriate.

In our opinions pages this week, Bruce Macfarlane weighs the balance in the context of the at-risk GCRF, which, he argues, underwrites a particular view of how global challenges should be addressed.

But while funding always comes with political considerations, that also requires good faith on both sides, which will be seriously undermined if commitments evaporate when the politics or economics change.

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