If the government is serious about ‘global Britain’, why is it cutting research funding?

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Given the ambitions outlined in the government’s integrated review of “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, you could be forgiven for thinking that research into the causes, detection and control of emerging infectious diseases with pandemic potential was being taken pretty seriously at the highest level. The government will “build on the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic to improve our use of data to anticipate and respond to future crises”, and intends to “drive towards a more science-led approach to the problems we face”. Or so it claims.

At the sharp end, the reality is very different. The integrated review was published five days after UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the body representing the UK’s seven research councils, posted an open letter explaining that its official development assistance (ODA) allocation had been slashed and there was now a £120m deficit in funds promised to research already up and running. This has left the programme I lead, the One Health Poultry Hub, with a 70% cut in its funding.

We are a network of 27 institutions in 10 countries. The work is far from glamorous and requires painstaking planning and coordination between teams from many disciplines, including social, veterinary, medical, biological and computational sciences. We study major sites of poultry production in south and south-east Asia, mapping and quantifying movements of chickens and people through different production and distribution networks, conducting interviews to understand what constrains or governs the actions of people involved in chicken rearing, trading, slaughter and consumption, collecting samples from chickens, people and the environment, isolating and characterising bacteria and viruses that can pass from chickens to people and antimicrobial resistance genes.

Integrating these strands of data allows us to understand how and where pathogens that make people sick emerge, amplify and transmit, to identify the behaviours and systems that pose the highest risks, and test intervention strategies that reduce the likelihood of disease spillover to people.

Our hub works on public health risks associated with global intensification of chicken production. This includes avian influenza (“bird flu”) with pandemic potential, and the “silent pandemic” of antimicrobial resistance, identified by the World Health Organization as a top-10 global health threat and predicted by former Conservative minister Jim O’Neill to cause a potential 10 million deaths by 2050. Covid-19 is the most recent pandemic to emerge from interactions between people and animals in food production systems, but it won’t be the last. Sadly, I have spent the past month trying to determine which parts of our research programme are expendable, when the truth is that none of them are.

The hub is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which harnesses the expertise of world-leading UK researchers to work with equivalent experts in developing countries and tackle the most difficult and persistent global challenges. GCRF does not fit a stereotypical picture of UK aid. It is a rigorously reviewed and managed collection of cutting-edge programmes that nurture international partnerships, build common approaches and support the positioning of the UK at the heart of global research, innovation and knowledge exchange. One of the most frustrating and sad things for the hubs is that they are doing precisely what the government is pledging as a priority for “Global Britain”, yet almost simultaneously it has slashed our budgets.

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In mid-2017, GCRF called for UK researchers to come up with ambitious ways to address the most intractable challenges facing humanity – climate change, conflict, population growth, urbanisation, growing inequalities and global health. The response was overwhelming, with about 250 proposals submitted. These kinds of programme are rightly subject to layers of scrutiny and approval and what followed was 16 months of reviews, refinements and in-depth interviews. It was in direct contrast, for example, to the speed with which £37bn of public money was deployed to UK Covid-19 testing and contact tracing. At the end of this highly competitive process, a dozen interdisciplinary research hubs were funded for five years with UKRI investment of £200m. They launched in March 2019 as: “Our answer to some of the world’s most pressing challenges … to make the world, and the UK, safer, healthier and more prosperous.”

Jump to 31 March 2021 and hub directors were told by UKRI that all hub budgets were to be reduced by approximately 70% for 2021-22, to take effect the next day. But it was no April fool. If we didn’t like it, we were told, we could terminate our grants.

A key pillar of GCRF is the vision that strengthening international networks of research and innovation provides agile response to emergencies. This was certainly the case for the One Health Poultry Hub. When Covid-19 struck just one year into our programme, we rapidly diverted resources to Covid response and research in the UK and Asia, while maintaining capacity to continue with our original plans, recognising that threats from avian influenza and AMR remain as serious as ever.

We don’t know why the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy targeted GCRF with such a deep cut; the ODA commitment went from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income but all 12 hubs were slashed by more than double this reduction. Do the department and the government more widely know what the hubs are set up to do? The partnerships they represent? The reputations they have? Do ministers recognise the impact these cuts are having on the UK’s international reputation as a trusted partner? Despite attempts and offers to engage in discussion and work with government to forge a shared vision of the future, hub directors and other GCRF grant holders have so far had no constructive responses. We can only hope that this will change as the dust settles; my door certainly remains open for us to build back better together.

• Prof Fiona Tomley is director of the One Health Poultry Hub

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