Loss of grants, driven by the deep cuts to foreign aid, threatens research and international collaborations
Senior scientists fear that the strict cuts to government research spending will have “catastrophic” consequences for the country, with projects cancelled midway through and with some of the brightest minds in the UK moving to other countries.
Hundreds of research projects that are tackling issues from the COVID-19 pandemic to antimicrobial resistance and the current global climate crisis are already being axed following the country’s main science funder, UK Research and Innovation, telling universities that its budget for official development assistance (ODA) grants had been sadly cut from £245m down to £125m.
But with the UK now out of the European Union, the funder may also be required to find up to £2bn per year from its current £8.5bn budget for UK scientists to join in with the research under the EU’s international Horizon programme.
This comes after roughly half all people in the UK now have antibodies against Covid, either through infection or vaccination, says the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Most of this will be through vaccination, with 30 million people in the UK having received at least a single dose of one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
The move, which could put 18,000 research jobs at risk, would reverse the past two years of increases in the science budget.
“It is absolutely vital that the government continues to support science. Some of the cuts we’ve been hearing about would be catastrophic, even existential,” said Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London.
“It will drive scientists elsewhere, it will destroy networks, it will damage the UK’s soft power to make connections throughout the world. None of this makes any sense.”
The Prime Minister has repeatedly stated that his aim was to make the UK a “global science superpower”, but as researchers have since pointed out, those within the UK are now braced for cuts to science, while other countries are investing much more. The problem is made worse by a slump in medical charity funding prompted by the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s no good talking the talk if you don’t walk the walk as well, and we ask the government to walk that walk,” said Mr Nurse. “I am sure the government will see sense over this. If they can’t see sense, they have no right to govern.”
This comes after people who have had to shield from the coronavirus have been told to follow the regular restrictions, but many do not feel safe to return to work. Over 3.7 million people within both England and Wales have been told that they no longer need to shield from the coronavirus after today.
Professor Julia Buckingham, who is the president of Universities UK and the vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, has said that the prospect of UKRI paying up to £2bn per year for association to Horizon Europe was “really terrifying”, adding that “this is not the impression we were under”.
She added that the loss of ODA grants, which were driven by deep cuts to foreign aid, are threatening international collaborations that have built and deepened ties with countries around the world.
Existing scientific projects have developed low-cost diagnostic tests for malaria, improved both water pumps and electrical grids, brought evidence-based decisions to the plastic waste management in Malaysia, and have bolstered tsunami and earthquake defences within Indonesia.