Horizon Europe is the largest international research funding programme in the world. But the UK’s participation hangs in the balance in the dispute over post-Brexit arrangements.
There is a long history of scientific research and breakthroughs in the UK. This has been empowered and emboldened by a vibrant and international science community. Boris Johnson’s government was particularly keen to stress that the UK was a science superpower and took steps to demonstrate this. In 2020, during the pandemic, the UK committed to investing 2.4% of GDP in research and development. But despite this interest in science, there has been criticism of how the UK has implemented that vision.
In the past year, Wellcome has thought a lot about how we can play our role in tackling the biggest health challenges we face. Over the next decade, we have committed to spending £16 billion to contribute to the next scientific solutions on fighting infectious diseases, tackling the impact of climate change on health, finding better interventions to help millions of people who experience mental health problems and supporting discovery research. We believe science can help everyone live a healthier life.
So how can the new UK prime minister prioritise and show leadership in science?
1. Deliver the government’s ‘science superpower’ agenda
The next government will need to work on turning this from a catchphrase into a cross-government action plan. They will need to be clear on their priorities and provide the long-term funding required to make these a reality – including following through on commitments to increase investment in the UK’s world-leading research and development sector.
Any ‘superpower’ for science will recognise the need for global collaboration; to have success, we will need to work with scientists around the world and ensure scientists want to come to the UK. The new government must support research collaboration through the closest possible involvement in the Horizon Europe programme – the world’s largest multilateral research and funding programme. This work should be overseen by a science minister who can work across government to agree priorities and implement a plan.
2. Prevent infectious diseases from escalating
Infectious diseases are estimated to cause around a quarter of all deaths in the world. It’s critical that we reduce the risk of disease outbreaks escalating and new pathogens emerging.
Over the past decade, the UK Government has frequently been at the forefront of efforts to address global infectious disease challenges. It has been a key partner on initiatives like Gavi, Global Fund, CEPI, the global ACT-Accelerator to tackle Covid-19, and efforts to mobilise a more effective global response to drug-resistant infections. The current monkeypox outbreak demonstrates how there are still critical gaps to fill in our global capabilities for identifying and controlling disease outbreaks.
The new prime minister needs to continue this leadership and build on its strengths in these areas so the global community can intervene earlier to stop infectious diseases from escalating. We need global, collaborative surveillance to spot where infectious diseases are a risk to people’s health and more effective and equitably accessible products and tools to act as soon as possible.
This requires careful coordination between the Department of Health and Social Care and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure we have the weight of our health expertise and our world-leading global health experts working together. It should be underpinned by a foreign aid budget which can support global health and the impact of climate change on health. To do this, the UK government will need to bring their spending on overseas aid back to 0.7% of GNI (Gross National Income).
3. Commit to climate mitigation and adaptation plans to protect health
Climate change is likely to be the greatest threat to human health this century. Around a third of heat-related deaths are already attributable to climate change, and the number of extreme weather disasters driven by climate change has increased fivefold over the past 50 years, killing more than two million people.
We’ve mapped 120 years of climate data to show where four climate-related health risks (drought, flooding, extreme heat and disease) have been recorded. What's crucial now is filling the gaps in the data so we can find ways to protect those communities most at risk.
The UK government committed to net zero by 2050 while Johnson was prime minister. It’s vital that the next prime minister recommits to this target and sets out a strategy to achieve this. Extremely hot temperatures this year have served as a reminder of why we need urgent action. What we have experienced in the UK is incomparable to the droughts taking place in the Sahel region of Africa, with climate change causing catastrophic levels of hunger. This is another reminder that this is a global challenge that requires a global solution.
We need high-income countries to work together to double down on their climate mitigation plans to avoid the worst impacts of climate on health. They must also implement solutions to adapt to ongoing climate change. And it’s essential that high-income countries support lower-income countries, which are suffering catastrophic climate disasters but are contributing significantly less to the problem, with the necessary funding for climate action. Supporting countries responding to the impact of climate change (adaptation) is likely to be a major focus of COP27 in Egypt this year.
4. Find new and improved ways to intervene early in mental health
Despite millions of people being affected, there is little to no understanding of how to improve the outlook for anxiety, depression, and psychosis. The UK should be at the forefront of research that deepens our understanding of these conditions and finds opportunities for early intervention. Effective early intervention could stop the escalation of these conditions before they become lifelong, debilitating problems.
Wellcome is contributing to this area of research by building a sustainable, inclusive, responsible and fair databank to collect rich data about which approaches could help people better manage their mental health. We’re also funding research into the interdependent roles of sleep and circadian rhythm disruptions in the development and resolution of anxiety, depression or psychosis.
Tackling global challenges together
Wellcome is best known for our funding of scientific research into global health, but we recognise that to ensure long-lasting change for the health of people around the world, research must inform policy change. Our Policy and Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships teams work with governments around the world to inform decisions about science and health and provide strong evidence for coordinated global action.
The scientific breakthroughs and innovation we require to tackle global health challenges will rely on international cooperation, openness and trust in global institutions. The UK government has a crucial role globally to ensure international cooperation and investment in global health is prioritised. The new prime minister will have a significant to-do list; we look forward to working with them to provide a healthy life for everyone.
This article was first published on 25 August 2022.