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Tackling the big questions in science policy

27 Oct, 2015


At the Wellcome Trust we aim to influence policy to ensure that researchers can be as effective as possible and to help tackle global health challenges. One of the ways we do this is through our science policy and advocacy events, such as supporting the recent Science Policy Question Time in conjunction with University College London (UCL). The Wellcome Trust’s Amy Cox attended the event, and here she explores some of the big issues covered…

You might be surprised by the broad range of issues that are impacted by science policy – from data regulation and genome editing, to intellectual property and drug resistant infections – science policy often has an unseen impact. The Science Policy Question Time event, organised jointly by the Wellcome Trust and UCL, gave the people the opportunity to quiz a panel of science policy experts.

Chaired by UCL’s Professor Graeme Reid, the panel’s breadth of expertise mirrored the broad scope of the topics discussed. Alun Evans, Chief Executive of the British Academy, Sarah Jackson, Director of Research, Partnerships and Innovation at the University of Liverpool, Nicola Perrin, Head of Policy at the Wellcome Trust, and Adam Smith, Assistant Communities Editor, The Economist were put through their paces by the audience.

Exit from the EU?

With a referendum on Britain’s place in the EU looming, the first topic of conversation focused on what would happen to the complex network of cutting-edge cross-border collaborations if Britain left the European Union. The panel was unanimous that EU membership has a positive impact on UK science – for example on available funding and the movement of researchers between member states.

The discussion then moved on to the role that scientists would play in the debate to leave the EU, and whether they could sway public opinion. Panellist Adam Smith argued that it will be “scientists marching down Whitehall in lab coats, not Nobel Laureates writing in The Times which will influence opinion”.

‘Fairness’ in funding

SPQT5Although there have been warm words from Chancellor George Osborne about the importance of science and engineering for innovation in the UK, there are fears about government investment in science in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review. As the government considers where to cut departmental budgets, there has been significant pressure from the science community to protect spending on research and development.

Professor Stephen Curry questioned the panellists on their ideas of ‘fairness’. With spending being cut across most government departments, he asked whether it is fair to ask for the science budget to be protected when so many people are worried about cuts to family benefits.

In response to this question, Nicola Perrin highlighted the benefits to health and the return on investment that comes from government investment in science. The UK pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical technology and diagnostics sectors generate an estimated annual turnover of £56 billion, and employ 183,000 people.

Funding the best research

In the past year, there has been clear determination to see Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield become a Northern Powerhouse through investment in science. However, questions remain about how this compares to the money that goes into the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

SPQT4Other asked how funding is allocated against government or other funders’ priorities, for example, how can we ensure that the best research gets funded? Is there a preference for pure or applied research – or the golden triangle versus the northern powerhouse?

Adam Smith argued ‘there is no magic balance’, and this was echoed by Nicola Perrin who championed the idea that funding should go to areas where there are research questions to be answered -one area highlighted as being in need of further research funding was mental health. Choosing priorities for research funding should involve the public, as well as governments and funders.

Final thoughts

The session ended with each of the panellists being asked what they would do if they were science minister for a day. There was an ambitious list of targets to tackle including climate change, open access and the high speed rail-link HS3. However a clear priority across the board was how to best support early career researchers, perhaps by overhauling the current career pathways. All agreed that there is a need to enthuse and incentivise the next generation of scientists in the UK – perhaps a good topic for the next Science Policy Question Time!

You can see what people were tweeting throughout the event in this Storify of tweets. Find out more about the range of policy and advocacy work we do on the Wellcome Trust website.

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