UK general election 2019: our letter to the party leaders

This is the text of a letter Wellcome has sent to the leaders of UK political parties with MPs in Parliament, ahead of the general election on 12 December.

Number 12 bus outside the Houses of Parliament in London

Credit: Aron Van de Pol / Unsplash

Wellcome is calling for science to be at the heart of each political party's manifesto.

I am writing to stress the importance of science to the UK’s future prosperity, and to encourage you to reflect this in your party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election.

Wellcome is the world’s second highest-spending charitable foundation, and is committed to improving health through supporting research. We invest most of our £1 billion annual spending in the UK because it has a thriving research sector, and we want this to continue in the future.

I hope science will be at the heart of your party’s vision for the UK and your long-term economic strategy, as science and innovation are reliable drivers of economic growth and sustainable employment. For every £1 spent by the government on R&D, private sector R&D output rises by 20p per year in perpetuity.

There is political consensus that the UK should increase its investment in research and development to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, and this very welcome. It is vital that this is given effect during the next Parliament through an ambitious firm plan, with a reliable commitment to year-on-year increases in spending to match the approach that competitors such as Germany are taking.

Reaching 2.4% requires an extra £20bn in public funding, but the key to success will be leveraging private sector investment, including through access to patient capital.

Science is a global endeavour, and the UK is a leader on the international stage. For this to continue, your party should adopt a truly international outlook. International collaboration is critical to tackling fundamental scientific questions, and to addressing challenges such as pandemics, drug-resistant infections, climate change and mental health. No single nation can solve these problems alone.

Your strategy for international collaboration should be built on securing association to Horizon Europe, the EU’s next major framework programme for research. The EU Framework Programmes are the most ambitious multilateral funding schemes in the world, and participation is increasingly global. The current programme has funded more than 7,500 collaborative projects with participants from 149 countries, and association would allow us to capitalise on our existing collaborative networks alongside building new ones around the world. I enclose a new briefing on why the UK should associate to Horizon Europe [PDF 240KB], which provides further detail.

To support ongoing collaboration, Wellcome believes that a dedicated post-Brexit agreement on science and innovation should be struck as soon as possible after the UK leaves the EU. Your party should prioritise this in the next phase of the negotiations. Together with the think tank Bruegel, Wellcome has been conducting a simulated negotiation process for a UK-EU science agreement to ensure that both sides can be ready to begin this, and we will share the outcomes of this work with you soon.

In addition to sustained financial support, the UK must actively encourage the movement of researchers, technicians and their families – not because there is a shortage of home-grown scientists, but because the arrival of people with new ideas and different perspectives leads to better science. The current high-cost, high-burden approach to skilled immigration is holding back progress. An enabling approach to regulation will also be important to enable the UK to become a world leader in the regulation of emerging technologies, such as genome editing and AI. In the future, the UK’s regulatory approach should be calibrated to promote innovation, build public confidence, and facilitate access to wider markets. 

Finally, the UK’s support for science is key to Britain’s future position and reputation on the global stage. Through our strength in research the UK already leads the response to global health challenges, such as drug-resistant infections which threaten to undermine the foundations of modern medicine, and health emergencies such as Ebola.

Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding underpins the UK’s work on epidemics and needs to be maintained, not least as it also attracts philanthropy from elsewhere. The cross-party commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on ODA is a clear expression of this country’s intent to be a constructive international partner in this field. 

The government that is elected in December will determine the UK’s future place in the world. I hope that your party will seize the opportunities that science provides in shaping that, and that you will do all you can to support a thriving research sector in the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy Farrar
Director of Wellcome