Letter to my MP: research and Brexit

My message to Catherine West

One of the reasons that UK science is great is access to EU research programmes. I’ve written to my MP, Catherine West, to ask for her support for the UK’s continuing access to EU funding programmes, as well as to emphasise my concerns about low levels of research funding generally. Watch this space for updates!

If you’re concerned about Brexit or science funding generally, I’d encourage you to get in touch with your MP too. Hopefully my letter can provide some inspiration, and we’ll be writing up a full guide on contacting your MP on the Science is Vital website soon.

My letter

Dear Catherine,

I am writing to you as a constituent (my address is XXXXX) to express my concern about the risks to UK research posed by Brexit, and low overall levels of public investment.

I last wrote to you in November 2015 highlighting some of my concerns about research funding, and I have copied that message below for your reference. All of these issues still stand, and I remain keen to discuss them further. However, since my last correspondence the risks to UK science have been compounded significantly by the vote to leave the EU.

I still work as a computational biologist at the Francis Crick Institute. The group I work in at the Crick is a very diverse, international team: in a group of about fifteen researchers, over ten different nationalities are represented. This is a microcosm of modern science, which thrives on researchers collaborating and working internationally. EU research programmes make this significantly easier, and therefore provide huge benefits to UK research via a number of different mechanisms.

I would like to ask for your support for the following:

  • Maintaining access to EU research programmes
  • Ensuring freedom of movement of people and ideas throughout the EU
  • Investing at least 0.8% of UK GDP in public funding of research

International collaboration

EU funding makes it much easier for groups of researchers in different countries to collaborate on projects. They are one of the few sources from which multinational collaborations can be funded on the same grant, meaning that all partners can be assured of funding if successful.

This collaboration has already been impaired by the referendum result, and the lack of subsequent reassurance from the government. Scientists for EU is collating a database of the impacts of the vote to leave on research containing literally hundreds of examples, including collaborators who are unwilling to have British teams on their grant applications, EU researchers who have turned down UK job offers, and so on. (There is a summary of their findings in their submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into leaving the EU.)

Even if the government pledged to make up the loss in funding on leaving the EU, the current system of funding through Research Councils and universities would not be able to replace the vital collaborative functions of EU funding. Further, the continuing large uncertainties around EU membership and large drop in the value of the pound are already making the UK a less attractive place for EU researchers.

Freedom of movement of people and ideas

Having recently recruited post-doctoral researchers from China and Iran, our group has direct experience of the bureaucracy and expense hiring scientists from many countries around the world can entail. Freedom of movement makes it dramatically easier to recruit the top researchers, wherever they are in the EU, which is vital in the increasingly specialised and competitive world of research.

This loss would also affect UK scientists seeking to make a career elsewhere in Europe, or go abroad for a short time to make new contacts or learn new skills and techniques. This is a group often neglected in discussions around migration.

In science as in many other fields, we need to make it easier to hire from a diverse pool of talent, and losing freedom of movement to and from EU countries would be a huge retrograde step.

Research funding

The UK is a net winner in terms of EU research funding, with British scientists winning more in EU grants than our contribution to the research budget. At present, around 10% of public funded research is supported by the EU. It is therefore a huge component of the UK science funding ecosystem. The government has currently pledged only to honour grants won before the UK leaves the EU, which does not provide the long-term stability required for researchers thinking of complex projects involving many collaborators, or their own research careers.

The steadily rising EU science budget has somewhat offset a decline in UK investment in publicly funded science. More details about the broader issues of science funding are included in my previous message, copied below. For a quick overview of these issues, see the five-minute talk I gave at the Science is Vital rally last year, or the summary page on the website I run at scienceogram.org.

Science is Vital is campaigning to get all political parties to agree to a target of at least 0.8% of GDP for public funding of research. I understand that Labour has committed to raising UK total funding of R&D from all sources to 3% of GDP by 2030. Given the finding that government spending has a significant ‘crowding-in’ effect on private and non-profit R&D, increasing it would seem to me to be a vital component of achieving this aim. Is this something that you or Labour more widely would be prepared to commit to?

I would be very keen to explore the issues raised in this letter further, and would be happy to visit one of your constituency surgeries to discuss them with you if appropriate. I look forward to your response.

Many thanks,

Andrew

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Andrew Steele statto@andrewsteele.co.uk
Date: 1 November 2015 at 19:32
Subject: Public funding of research – debate on Wednesday 4th November
To: Catherine West

Dear Catherine,

I am writing to you as one of your constituents to express my concern at the current levels of investment in research by the UK government, and the future of UK science after this month’s Spending Review.

Firstly, I would like to draw your attention to a debate in Westminster Hall this Wednesday 4th November at 14:30: ‘Role of the Treasury in supporting UK science’, tabled by Angela Smith MP. I would be very grateful if you would consider attending, and raising some of the points I set out below.

As well as being a practising scientist at the Francis Crick Institute, I am the Vice-Chair of a grassroots campaigning organisation called Science is Vital. Our current campaign invites supporters of science to write a postcard to George Osborne explaining why science is vital to them, and it has so far attracted over 1000 responses, ranging from scientists setting out the economic and social impact of their work, to patients who have been the beneficiaries of treatments resulting from research. (There are a few examples on the Science is Vital website.) We also held a rally in London last week, which was live-streamed to four other gatherings around the UK.

This support for science occurs against a backdrop of dwindling public investment. Before the election, Science is Vital highlighted figures showing that the UK invested less than 0.5% of GDP in research in 2012, placing us not only lower than any other G8 country, but lower than any other G8 country in the last 20 years. The latest figures show this percentage dropping further, to 0.44% of GDP. If present policy continues, this decline will continue throughout this parliament.

This is a cause for significant concern for a number of reasons. Public funding of science offers huge potential for savings within government, and returns to the wider economy. For example, a study published last year found that return on government and charitable investment in cancer research since 1970 was a substantial 10% per year. Further, UK science is widely recognised as world-leading, but we will not be able to maintain our internationally recognised excellence if investment continues to decline.

But the GDP figures and economic issues they highlight are merely indicative of my deeper concern: science is woefully underfunded compared to the scale of the problems it is trying to solve. For example, cancer kills about a third of people, and yet we spend less than £3 per person per year on public-funded cancer research. I would argue that this is grossly disproportionate—if a disease has a 30% chance of killing me, I want to spend more than a handful of pounds per year to understand its causes and look for treatments. And cancer is arguably the best-funded condition: stroke is responsible for 10% of deaths, and the government spends less than 70p per person per year on stroke research. These kinds of shocking figures recur across science, from applied research in areas like health and energy, to blue-skies research such as space science and particle physics.

You can see more statistics like this in the short talk I gave at the Science is Vital rally, or on the website I run at scienceogram.org. For more detail about this issue, you can read the Scienceogram submission to the recent Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the Science Budget.

Research funding is a subject of huge relevance to everyone, on a local and national level. Many of your constituents, including myself, are employed in scientific or technical jobs in London’s universities, research institutes and private companies. Social sciences and humanities also have huge importance, both as academic disciplines and with their potential to feed into evidence-based policy at all levels of government. There are also significant wider social benefits from research, from new drugs and treatments to cleaner and cheaper ways to generate energy. While not often debated in politics, research funding is of huge significance to many voters, individually and on aggregate.

I would like to see the government aspiring to invest in research at a level commensurate with the size of the problems science is trying to solve. This requires a substantial positive commitment to long-term funding of research, which seems very unlikely to be the outcome of the Spending Review.

I would be very keen to discuss the issues raised in this letter further, and look forward to your response. Please let me know if I can provide any further information.

Many thanks,

Andrew

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