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Funders and universities must work together to build international partnerships

Ed Whiting

Ed Whiting

Director of Policy and Chief of Staff
Wellcome Trust

With the UK government starting the formal process of leaving the European Union, together with the reforms currently being debated as part of the Higher Education and Research Bill and the creation of UK Research and Innovation, science and research funding is going through a period of considerable change. If we work closely with each other and our counterparts overseas, this period of change may present opportunities as well as risks.

The UK is currently a global leader in science and innovation, and this is why Wellcome funds research here so heavily: 79 per cent of our current funding – £3.1 billion – supports work inside the UK, while 88 per cent of our funding is administered by UK organisations. We were therefore very pleased when the prime minister pledged in January to make sure the UK remains "one of the best places in the world for science and innovation" following Brexit.

However, for this to happen, we need to ensure that government, charities and others work together to fund research in a way that builds on and recognises the vital role of universities as centres of academic and research excellence and as the source of UK economic strength.

Within the UK funding landscape, this means we should safeguard and enhance the existing funding structure, as it is the foundation of our current research excellence. In our view, the current system of dual support – the provision of block funding alongside individual research grants for specific projects and programmes – gives universities space and support to nurture the very best talent, and also means that charities and other funders' provisions can go further. It should be maintained and ideally increased over the coming years.

The UK government should also work in partnership with trusts, foundations and others as it establishes UK Research and Innovation, the new public body for the research sector. Delivery of the government's new industrial strategy will inevitably need more rather than less coordination between large funders, government and the private sector, particularly if it is to achieve its (sensible) goals of distributing growth around the country while improving UK economic performance and productivity. We're pleased that the government has included the Haldane principle in the current Higher Education and Research Bill, which will ensure that research-funding decisions continue to be properly informed by independent expert opinion and review.

More broadly, there's significant uncertainty around future access to European funding following Brexit. This is a valid cause for concern: the UK has benefitted substantially from EU funding schemes, and has traditionally been one of their leading recipients. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received the fourth largest share of EU research funding  –  8.8 billion –  and was the largest recipient of funding awarded on a competitive basis. 

It's not just the loss of this funding itself that poses a problem; we also stand to miss out by ceasing to fund research in this manner. To remain a global scientific superpower, it's vital that UK research institutions continue to have access to this sort of globally prestigious and competitive funding, because these are properties that drive up the quality of research. International funding structures also enable British researchers to collaborate with the best scientists in the world.

In addition to the challenges of increasing UK government expenditure to compensate for lost international investment, we can't assume that replacing EU funding on a one-for-one basis from the domestic budget would ensure continuing quality. Indeed, it's very likely that it wouldn't: prestige and competition are better provided through partnerships between countries than by individual countries standing alone. If the UK can't continue to have access to competitive EU funding as an associate member, then we must explore alternative sources and partnership models to provide funding in this format.

Consequently, over next two years Wellcome will be engaging with its counterparts in the EU to build common arguments for EU and global science partnerships. We'll also be building new partnerships ourselves, and we hope to work with universities and other research institutions as we do so. 

Ultimately, the research community shouldn't be shy in acknowledging what it does well. To ensure that the UK is a great place to fund research in the future, we should accept that it is a good place to fund research now. Maintaining and strengthening those elements that make it so – well-supported institutions, research-led decision making, competitive international funding – must be our priority. 

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