Let’s renew funding and support for research as a public good

There has rarely been a time when science was so prevalent in our minds – leading daily news bulletins and dominating so many of our conversations. As the shadow minister for science, I have been intrigued by the government’s claim to be “following the science” – relying on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advice from epidemiologists, virologists, public health experts and many others to make decisions at this key time. Our world-leading researchers in universities and the private sector are part of international collaborative efforts on a vaccine and treatments that will save lives, while others work to make the levels of testing promised by the government a reality.

But these are difficult times for everyone, and science is no exception. There are many sources of anxiety. Universities face a significant funding problem with the prospect of lower student numbers this September, compounded by the fact that social distancing measures make many forms of research impossible to conduct. The proliferation of short-term contracts means many researchers are concerned that they will not be able to find work in the coming years as job opportunities become limited.

As is true in other areas, the challenges presented to researchers by Covid-19 are exacerbated by longer standing problems. In the days when these things were still possible, I hosted the launch of a report on the casualisation of work within UK universities that detailed the impact of the use of fixed-term and ‘teaching-only’ contracts, which account for over a third of the academic workforce. This group of workers are disproportionately women and BAME, and after years of moving from short-term job to short-term job, they now face the prospect of a hiring freeze.

Research funding is also a concern – even as it is rising. Labour’s pledge to grow research and development spending to 3% of GDP, part of creating an ‘innovation nation’, is needed now more than ever. The Tories only promised to raise it to 2.4%. But the virus is already reducing GDP forecasts, and there is still the looming uncertainty of how Brexit will affect funding and collaborative research projects. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) has been suspended to allow researchers to focus on tackling Covid-19. My colleague Emma Hardy has argued that the REF isn’t fit for purpose, and I believe we need to carefully consider how the government supports our world-class research.

Covid-19 has made it very clear that scientific research is a public good. It is driven by public funding, and government priorities have a significant role in determining both what and how research is produced. The REF is central to allocating government funding, but it also encourages a competitive environment with its use in league tables, creates incentives to game the system, and can be used to put intense pressure on casualised staff. They can still have their research outputs submitted even when a university lets them go after their short-term contract ends.

Obviously, there needs to be accountability of public money and a transparent way of assessing research funding. But we need to better facilitate collaboration between researchers, institutions, communities and industry. This requires strategic direction from the government in terms of setting key societal priorities to allow long term and innovative research across disciplines, as well as a more equitable funding formula that provides support for more localised and specialist research that the REF currently undervalues. It should be a criteria of public research funding that institutions provide secure work for researchers and close gender and BAME pay gaps.

The current pandemic will not be the last we face, and there are other challenges that need confronting. Our societies must change significantly over the next decades to tackle the climate emergency, which will require government support, public buy-in and researchers to be focused towards important goals. I want to see universities and scientific research enabling new industries – particularly in manufacturing – that can respond to public health crises as well as decarbonise the economy.

What I want to see in the future is research informing policy and important social change, rather than academics filling in extensive submissions. Any temporary stagnation in funding and support for research risks weakening our response to both this pandemic and the looming climate crisis.

The UK punches well above its weight in science, and must continue to do so in the new world that coronavirus is shaping. Just as we need to renew public funding and support for the NHS, we also need to renew public funding and support for research as a public good, integral to facing problems like pandemics and climate change in the long term, as well as enriching our understanding of the world and each other.

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