On Science Funding and Brexit

I think it's safe to say that Brexit came as somewhat of a shock, and the air of uncertainty and unease hasn't waned, many weeks since the vote. Uncertainty and science funding are unfortunate bed fellows, for all that science provides, the investment in basic research verges on laughable. In fact, the precarious nature of science funding in the UK has spurred researchers into action. This is where Science is Vital comes in. Born out of frustration over cuts to UK science funding, Dr Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at UCL laid down the gauntlet to researchers to take action, and Science is Vital is now making waves. The organisation formed back in 2010 and is a grassroots campaign comprised, not just of scientists, but of anyone enthusiastic about extolling the enormous value of science to the UK’s economy and its reputation. We spoke to Andrew Steele founder of Scienceogram and Vice-Chair of Science is Vital about the funding landscape within the UK and the impact that Brexit may have on the the pockets of the countries research institutions; and the potential of losing some serious intellectual capital from overseas (check out that episode here).

Political parties clearly recognise the importance of science, or at least the standing of UK science - party manifestos were rife with the language of stimulating STEM innovation, and British brilliance. And why would they not? According to Science is Vital, the UK accounts for around 10% of the global scientific output while having just 1% of the global population. So how come researchers have to protest, and petition just to secure funding? 

Besides from Science is Vital, Andrew has been taking a novel approach to communicating the true per capita 'burden' of science with Scienceogram, a platform that places science funding into a more easily digestible social and economic context, using per person per year statistics. CERN for instance cost - at £1.50 per person per year - peanuts. Andrew's aim with Scienceogram is to show "how research is woefully underfunded compared to the scale of the problems that science is trying to solve", and I think it's time to start paying attention. There are some areas of science of course that attract plenty of funding, those emotive areas of research such as Parkinson's or Cancer are prime examples. But even these apparent financial behemoths, when placed in a per capita context are not so overwhelming. We can do better for science. 

Despite the scale of the problem, the finance offered to address this with scientific research is minimal. Source: Scienceogram

Despite the scale of the problem, the finance offered to address this with scientific research is minimal. Source: Scienceogram

Large funding projects in science are often plagued by criticism of the 'what-about' variety. Highlighting the cost of a recent ISS resupply launch is regularly met with a parade of things we could have alternately spent the money on. And these are usually noble, humanitarian efforts, but these criticisms miss the point. Science is too important to underfund, and Andrew is showing with Scienceogram that it's anything but overfunded. Yes there are areas that act as financial vacuums in the current research landscape, but instead of defunding we should push more funds to more science. 

Following the Brexit vote the concept of losing out on so much EU science funding (the UK was the 2nd largest recipient of funds) is a bitter pill to swallow. But it's not only the financial component that's a point of concern after the vote. Science suffers from a brain-drain already. A result of low job security post-PhD and the post-doc trap, a lack of financial incentives, draconian tech transfer units, or the general lure of leaving the academic environment. Researchers in AI, Robotics and Neuroscience are reaping the benefits of the investment boom in machine and deep learning advances. And the numbers of researchers leaving the academy for the likes of Google, IBM and Facebook is not going unnoticed. As these big firms take the plunge into the life sciences and biotech, with spinoffs such as Calico and Verily, more ground could be lost for the traditional model of science. So haemorrhaging talent is already a big issue, but what if we can't incentivise researchers to join our institutions in the first place. The Brexit result at face value is an inward looking decision, with anecdotal reports of researchers deciding that settling in the UK is not in their best interests following the vote. The promises from the government of underwriting Horizon 2020 funding and the pitching of the Crick as a Biomedical keystone, may be encouraging in the short term, but still, the trigger on article 50 is yet to be pulled and with no solid date floated, uncertainty and science funding are inseparable.