Ongoing UK Research Problems (12): Faith, Hope, Hype and Brexit

(December 11th, 2017) Following the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK government has resolved to be the first nation ever to withdraw from the European Union. In the absence of any previous example nor any clear plan for how the UK will achieve its divorce, uncertainty reigns, not least for UK science.

Nine months ago, Article 50 was activated by the UK government, setting off the 2 year countdown to the formal exit from the EU on 29th March 2019. However, the first phase of the negotiations have still not been fully clarified. In phase one, the UK were told it had to meet 3 conditions – on citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the financial ‘divorce’ settlement - before the EU27 could begin to consider phase two talks that will define the new trading relationship between the UK and the EU. Research and higher education are also due to be discussed in this second phase of Brexit negotiations, but the first phase of the talks have not been encouraging.

UK prime minister, Theresa May, made a panicked last-minute rush to Brussels on 8th December, where she agreed in extremis to the EU’s three main demands in order to move on to the talks about trade. However, considerable doubts have already been raised as to the sincerity of the UK government’s position. “As the smoke clears on the prime minister’s 11th-hour EU deal, it is becoming apparent that there are still more questions than answers” reported the Guardian.

The deal was “deliberately opaque” on many key issues, such that in many ways the real arguments have merely been postponed. One UK diplomat said a free trade deal between the UK and EU, similar to that with Canada and excluding services, was all that would be on offer from the EU but it would not be ready until 2024 at the earliest. If new conditions for the funding of EU-UK science collaborations are also delayed until 2024, a lot of research projects could be even further hindered, postponed or cancelled.

The continuing lack of confidence in the UK government’s handling of Brexit also undermines some of their claims about the glowing future for UK science. For a start, what vision of science are we talking about? The UK government under David Cameron had already been developing a new research strategy before the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum. As described in earlier parts of this series, it has been increasing its control over research directions, notably through the creation of a huge, single funding entity, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This also coincides with a clear intention to divert funding towards more applied R&D projects that specifically aim for economic returns through new “innovative” products and services, “re-engineering” the interactions between research and innovation.

Changes in the nature of future funding for UK research will be facilitated by concentrating all funding into one major structure, run by a single head and a committee with political and business interests. But the uncertainty of Brexit has now resulted in a series of panicked responses to the justified worries and concerns of researchers - what will happen if EU funding and collaborations are lost? In addition to certain specific schemes, such as the Ernest Rutherford Fund (£100 million for fellowships to attract foreign researchers), the government has launched its Industrial Strategy, which places research at the centre of its future hopes for the UK economy “post-Brexit’, or as Nature put it, “United Kingdom relies on science to revive flagging economy”.

When Theresa May first presented the new Industrial Strategy in January 2017, it was “full of proposals that could change how universities and academics work”. The paper outlining the strategy made some stark admissions about the failings of the British economy, and proposed more spending on research as part of the solution. “The UK invests 1.7 per cent of GDP in private and public funds on research and development. This is below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent and substantially below the leading backers of innovation – countries like South Korea, Israel, Japan, Sweden, Finland and Denmark – which contribute over 3 per cent of their GDP to this area.” Therefore, the strategy will provide an additional £2 billion a year by 2020-21 which, it says, will increase public R&D spending by around 20 per cent. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) calculated this would boost R&D spending to 2 per cent of GDP, still short of the OECD average, but this also assumes it will stimulate business spending, for example, through tax credits on commercial R&D.

Part of the funding will be channelled through a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which will “support business-led collaborations with coordinated research efforts” and focus on the “challenges, opportunities and technologies that have the potential to transform existing industries and create entirely new ones”. This “challenge” model of innovation is explicitly modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). So far, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, has committed £1 billion to the Challenge Fund over the next 4 years. Paul Nightingale, from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, says this changes how the UK commercialises its research. Rather than funding basic science and hoping the resultant discoveries will be turned into new products and technologies – a “failed model”, he says – the new strategy will instead ask industry for its “intractable” problems and call on academic scientists to help out. It is a vision of “questions from industry driving research.”
To date, the Industrial Strategy has met with mixed reactions, not least because it seems to ignore the existence of Brexit. However, given the high levels of uncertainty about what Brexit will finally look like, or indeed whether it might yet be stopped, perhaps it really is easier to pretend that it simply isn’t there. This was apparently what Mark Walport, chief executive designate of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), did at his first major presentation in July 2017. Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at ICL and member of the boards of Science is Vital and CaSE, was in the invited audience when Walport “the most powerful scientist in the UK” set out his vision for the future of research and innovation. As head of UKRI, “the new super-research council that will soon oversee all publicly-funded research and development in Britain,” he spoke at length both about the guiding principles of his new organisation and about the links between fundamental research and the government’s Industrial Strategy that “aims to tackle the societal and economic imperatives facing Britain in the 21st century.”

“Remarkably, however,” Curry reported, “the word ‘Brexit’ did not pass Walport’s lips, even though it is the defining political upheaval of our times. Brexit has brought to the surface political and economic divisions that have long simmered beneath the surface and will colour every single policy decision in the years to come. It poses incalculable risks to Britain’s research prowess by unravelling personal, collaborative and financial ties that have been nurtured over decades.” And yet, the UK’s “most powerful scientist” did not make any comments about it! Curry said this apparent lack of urgency to define a plan for UKRI that specifically embraces Europe was “deeply troubling”, despite the promise of significantly increased research funds to realise UKRI’s plans.

On 27th November 2017, Theresa May launched the updated paper version of the Industrial Strategy, described as the “much-anticipated blueprint for boosting productivity and wages while blazing a trail with new technologies in post-Brexit Britain”. Titled “Building a Britain fit for the future”, it now contains a pledge of around £12.5 billion in public research and development spending. It hopes to raise the level of R&D investment from 1.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, which “could mean” around £80 billion of additional investment in advanced technology in the next decade. The rate of tax credit for private R&D will be increased to 12 per cent.

However, pro-EU politicians, including Conservative grandee, Lord Heseltine, said that the “best industrial strategy would be to simply stop Brexit”. This paper is an “undisguised attempt by the government to allay fears” over the impact of leaving the EU on the UK economy. It marks a revival of a state-led approach to industry that was popular in the 1970s but was dispensed with by Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister and has since then been viewed with suspicion by some Conservatives. The Labour Party poured scorn on the document, saying it was full of “re-announced policies and old spending commitments”.

Four “grand challenges” are identified in the strategy under the headings ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘clean growth’, ‘an ageing society’ and ‘the future of mobility’. It also contains ideas for how UK food production could be transformed outside of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy using the “latest technology to maximise yields”.
Nature magazine said the UK has now laid out how it will pour money into research to boost its economy as the country prepares to leave the European Union in 2019. It noted that “science does not usually sit at the forefront of British economic-policy documents”, but the UK government’s Industrial Strategy is becoming increasingly focussed on research “as a remedy for economic woes”. Paul Nightingale said this shift in research emphasis will come with “expectations”. Historically, commercialising research has not been seen as a strength of the UK universities system. But “in return for more R&D cash, universities will now be expected to improve how they interact with local businesses and people, and to increase their commercial focus”. Nightingale said this means that the new money will have new conditions, “This isn’t ‘strings attached’, this is ropes”! Yet, he said, lots of academics still didn’t understand how big a change this represents.

Similar doubts have also been expressed about the thinking behind one of the government’s new “challenges”. The Faraday Challenge offers support for battery technologies from the genesis of new ideas right through to product development, scale-up and manufacture and was announced in July with a budget of £246 million. It is split into three streams that cover the research, innovation and scale-up related to new battery technologies, which together “are designed to produce a step change in the commercialisation of research and drive economic success for the UK in this area.”

But science policy experts have concerns about the effectiveness of the programme, which delivers a series of coordinated competitions for funding to boost the UK’s expertise in battery technology. Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the Alliance Manchester Business School, said using words like “challenge” in the policy was new but that this was simply a decision to reinvest public funds in applied research, something the UK government had stopped some 30 years ago. However, he said that there is “very little systematic evidence” about the effectiveness of any research funding policies, including this one. “All this talk is not very informed in reality”.

Paul Nightingale said that, outside some Asian countries, including South Korea, it was “rare” to see this sort of very applied political policy. Creating a new technological industry pushed through by research was difficult and very expensive to do, “The science-push model is rarely the most effective way of doing it and there is a danger of ending up with it becoming a white elephant with the operational expenditure too much and draining resources from elsewhere. It has been applied before in the UK to various nuclear technologies and the history of this has been sufficient to set some alarm bells ringing,” he added.

David Bailey, professor of industrial strategy at the Aston Business School, said the UK government’s Industrial Strategy is a welcome step, as far as it goes. But it is “questionable whether the strategy offers enough to deal with the disruption that Brexit is likely to bring, or to properly grasp the opportunities and challenges of the fourth industrial revolution”.

Indeed, he noted that “despite more hype than a new Adele album”, it had received a “pretty tepid welcome.” This is “not the great leap forward that was promised” although the scale of its ambitions is impressive, “Think of the UK being at the forefront of artificial intelligence and data, being a world leader in moving people and goods, maximising the advantages from the shift to clean energy, or harnessing innovation to meet the needs of an ageing society.” Yet he pointed at the lack of strategic alignment across policies, the meagre resources on offer and the centralised nature of the policies, notably the lack of devolution of power and resources, all of which leave these “laudable ambitions” as little more than “a wish list”.

Furthermore, the “elephant in the room” is again Brexit. The strategy is supposed to boost Britain’s productivity and competitiveness in a post-Brexit world, but the uncertainty over Brexit risks stalling investment in industries, unless a transitional deal keeps open access to the single market and the customs union.

Another major criticism of the strategy is its lack of “financial clout.” The UK government seems willing to spend £50 billion on the HS2 high-speed rail scheme and £50 billion on exiting the EU but, despite its big ambitions, it will spend “peanuts” on actually trying to make Britain the most innovative economy in the world.

On 6th December, a Life Science offshoot of the government’s Industrial Strategy was presented by business secretary, Greg Clark. More hype seemed to be on offer as he described the government’s plan to make the UK a “world leader in the life sciences”, securing investments from businesses, boosting infrastructure and attracting top talent. The UK will be “the world’s most innovative economy” in bioscience.

A central pillar of the plan is the Health Advanced Research Programme, again modelled on DARPA, and designed to foster innovation by strengthening links between different bodies. The government hopes to “seize on the potential of emerging technologies” such as genomics and artificial intelligence. The main author of the strategy was John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford, and coincidentally, the University of Oxford has emerged as a major beneficiary of the deal.

It will be home to a Novo-Nordisk-funded diabetes research centre worth £115 million; a research project on novel methodologies in clinical trials led by Johnson & Johnson and a multinational clinical trial on heart disease by The Medicines Company. The government will bolster these investments with a £215m housing deal with Oxfordshire council and the construction of better links between Oxford and Cambridge, in the form of the East-West rail link and the Oxford-Cambridge expressway road link. However, Bell stressed that northern and western regions of the UK also stand to benefit e.g. there are plans for a £350m investment in the Leeds medtech hub to fund collaborative projects between universities, local authorities, industry and the NHS.

When John Bell was questioned by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee about the universities’ role in his bioscience deal, he said the life sciences strategy will focus heavily on “empowering small businesses and encouraging medical innovation, and rather less on academic research”. Bell stressed that this was “not the government’s strategy but industry’s strategy”.

But Pauline Neville-Jones, a former Conservative minister, told the committee that had she been deciding on the strategy’s governance, she would have made more room for academics. She questioned Bell over whether he thought research was of secondary importance in an industrial strategy. Bell responded that of the seven or eight strands of the sector deal, some were more appropriate for academic input than others. He said there is little room for academics on the manufacturing side of things, but noted that Greg Clark, the business secretary, is also responsible for universities and therefore the views of academics would be “represented at the highest level.” Questioned about the strategy’s heavy emphasis on biomedical sciences at the expense other life sciences, Bell said this focus was shaped by industry and the Department of Health.

And presumably, the future course of Brexit negotiations will have some influence, too.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto


Last Changes: 12.22.2017