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Funding and Fundamentals: Future challenges for UK science policy

09 Nov 2016

Sir Paul Nurse, CEO of the Francis Crick institute, discusses the major issues facing UK research, and how best to tackle them.

CaSE has been fighting effectively for UK science for 30 years with well thought out and constructive analyses of science policies.  It has achieved much during that time but will still be needed in the future, because despite the strength of the UK science research endeavour there remain significant issues that need to be tackled, particularly with interactions of the scientific community with Government.

So what are the main issues that CaSE will have to address in the coming years?  The most obvious is the low overall support that UK scientific research receives both from the Government and from industry.  At 0.49% of GDP, UK Government support languishes at the bottom of advanced nations, with other European countries averaging 0.67%, and some, like Germany, investing over 0.8%.  Repeated years of campaigning have failed to improve this disappointing situation.  This low support is especially damaging for the physical sciences, because the biological sciences are helped in part by significant philanthropic contributions for biomedical research from charitable organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.  The low support for research from industry is equally disturbing, given that future economic success of the UK is reliant on ideas and innovation and not cheap labour and natural resources. 

The next issue for CaSE is high level strategic decision making about scientific research policy.  The UK’s Research Councils and other funding research organisations interact reasonably well with research scientists.  They rightly emphasise excellence, good quality peer review, and freedom for scientists to pursue what they find interesting and productive.  The difficulties come with higher level strategic thinking, the interactions of research scientists with Government:  questions like what balance of support should be invested in different research disciplines, in different locations throughout the country, in Universities compared with others carrying out research, organisations in programmatic initiatives such as grand challenges as compared with investigator led programmes.  These are often difficult questions to consider, and the UK lacks effective structures to deal with them.  Presently the debates can occur behind closed doors without proper scrutiny, and in some areas such as distribution between the disciplines represented by the various Research Councils, there seems to be very limited discussion.

The third issue is more diffuse.  There is a need to ensure that science operates in a way that has the support of society as a whole.  Critical here are the proper conduct of science, debate about advances in scientific knowledge leading to applications that the public may either support or find disturbing, and better understanding by the public of what is required for a good scientific research endeavour.  This last point is not simply about funding and transparent decision making, it is also about the need for the country to be open and welcoming to ideas and people from around the world for the best research to flourish in the UK.  It is a major reason scientists were against BREXIT, with its overtones of xenophobia, its inward looking perspective, and its promotion of anti-immigration views.   Without the ability to attract highly accomplished scientists from around the world our scientific and indeed all our intellectual endeavours will not thrive.

A most pressing need then is to put in place mechanisms that will ensure a much stronger voice for the science community with Government for discussions about policy for science.  The present fragmented voice of seven Research Councils is failing to have the impact needed, and the Councils also have insufficient protection from bureaucratic interference from Government Departments.  Properly set up with appropriate safeguards, the proposed UKRI can provide a way forward, because it will be a strong unitary body with real influence and power.  This will require effective leadership including a strong voice from the research community to bring about more effective policies for scientific research.  We cannot afford to be complacent about this and bury our heads in the sand.  The science community should seize this opportunity and mould the UKRI proposal to more effectively promote the UK scientific research endeavour.  We need to put a better system in place especially for our younger research colleagues struggling for support.  The present failures will only get worse because of BREXIT unless the science voice gets more effective.  A strong science voice at the BREXIT discussions is required and that we presently lack.  We need CaSE to critique what is proposed and to argue for a UKRI that delivers the best policy for science and the UK’s research endeavour.

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