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Science funding needs to be under the microscope

10 Nov 2015

Professor Nigel Brown, President of the Microbiology Society, on making the case for investment in science

As the Government approaches the 2015 Spending Review, it is important that we argue the case for science spending to be, at the very least, maintained at its present levels. The investment of public money in research drives the investment of private R&D money in the UK. It is a pool of scientific, engineering and medical excellence that keeps multinational companies like GSK and innovative engineering firms such as Rolls-Royce in the UK, not a sense of national loyalty. At a time when many other developed nations are increasing their budgets for scientific research, we risk our pool becoming smaller.

The Government has asked its Departments to make savings. BIS has a dilemma. If it is to make savings, where does it cut? The research budget or the universities’ budgets? Either will damage the ability of the university sector to deliver truly ground-breaking research as the seed corn for the great innovations of the future. The Research Councils, as the main conduit of Government-funded public sector research, already have programmes in place to make their actions more efficient, ahead of the outcome of the Nurse Review. Further actions to reduce the number of Research Councils would be likely to incur a significant administrative cost for little future saving.

Although I write this in a personal capacity, I am conscious of the effect that a cut in research funding would have on my own discipline of microbiology. As President of the Microbiology Society, I am aware of the vast range of different areas in which our members conduct research. Apart from the very obvious areas of infectious disease, microbiologists are leading in the development of new biotechnology, giving rise to new products and processes. Many microbiological research areas tackle urgent global issues.

The development and production of new antibiotics is one such case. Publicly-funded research is successful in identifying new antimicrobial agents, but the testing and production of these is incredibly expensive. Few large companies are looking for new antibiotics, so publicly-funded research in universities, research institutes and some small start-up enterprises is crucial to tackling the potential crisis where some infections no longer respond to available drugs. We also need new vaccines to tackle viral diseases – as was shown by the use of experimental vaccines in tackling some cases of Ebola virus infection. In order to develop new vaccines, we need fundamental studies of the process of infection by particular viruses. Investment in such research will make significant contribution to the UK economy by reducing or removing working time lost due to infection.

Microbiology research can also contribute directly to the economy by taking waste and converting this to usable product or energy. Anaerobic fermentation processes of organic waste can generate methane and other gases that can be used to generate energy. Other fermentation products can act as feedstock for the chemical industry, avoiding the use of non-replaceable petrochemicals. Microbes can be used to reclaim valuable products from metal-containing wastes, reducing the environmental and energetic costs of mining metals from ores.

The new area of synthetic biology allows organisms to be modified to undertake processes that do not exist in nature. This is an extension of genetic modification, but is done with precision on the basis of modelling the anticipated outcomes. Yeast has been modified for many years to produce insulin used by most diabetic patients, or the chymosin used in the manufacture of hard cheese. The opportunities provided by synthetic biology in the modification of micro-organisms are limited only by our imagination – and by funding.

We are at a crossroads. Climate change, infectious diseases and food security are issues that will not go away. Microbiology has a role to play in limiting, or even preventing, these problems. However, this cannot be done ‘on the cheap’. The next Spending Review must protect the science budget for the good, not just of the current excellent science in which the UK leads the world, but for the good of future generations.

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