UK’s ‘science superpower’ status under threat over cuts to global health research

The UK’s reputation as a science superpower is under threat because of government cuts to global health research, experts have warned. 

Academics were told of the cuts earlier this month when UK Research and Innovation warned that its budget would be slashed in half to £120m for the next financial year.

However, the impact on individual programmes is only just emerging, with researchers being given just days’ notice to prepare. 

The cuts are part of the government’s reduction of the overseas development budget, from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent, announced last year by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. 

However, because the UK has already committed some of that budget to multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organization and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the axe is falling more heavily on other areas.

At an online press briefing some of the UK’s most eminent academics highlighted the paradox in slashing global health research funding at a time when UK science has been so important in the fight against Covid.

Professor Dame Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said the cuts would “constrain the UK’s role combating some of the world’s most pressing challenges”. 

“The government wants the UK to be a science superpower – both the prime minister and the chancellor have said so. And there are very good reasons for them saying that as it’s science that’s not only rescued us from Covid, but is core to protecting the health of the nation in many other ways,” she said. 

Mr Johnson has repeatedly said he wants the UK to be a leader in science and innovation in a post-Brexit world. A new funding agency will back “high risk, high reward projects” and an Office for Talent will be set up in Number 10 to make it easier for world-leading scientists and innovators to come to the UK, he pledged last year.

The cuts to global health research come at a time when UK science as a whole faces an uncertain financial future. Some £2 billion is to be cut from the UK science budget as part of the Brexit deal and vital charity donations have dried up as a result of the pandemic. 

The UK’s world-leading malaria research has been hit particularly hard by the cuts. Colin Sutherland, professor of parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) was told last week that a four-year malaria grant awarded last July would be cut by two thirds for the next 12 months from April 1.

Prof Sutherland told the Telegraph: “I got a week’s notice so how do I do this work for the next 12 months? Do I expect the guy I hired to only have a third of a can of baked beans on a third of a piece of toast for the rest of the year? It’s completely unprecedented.

“It’s very common not to get funding, but to get funding, start a project, hire the staff, set up all the processes and then have the funding taken away is shocking,” he said. 

Another project at the school focused on malaria prevention in Africa is also under threat but the scale of the cut is not yet clear, said Prof Sutherland.

Professor Peter Piot, former director of LSHTM, said there would be a heavy toll on researchers in developing countries who partner with institutions such as LSHTM. 

“This will have a ripple effect in local institutions in developing countries. This is not only affecting their livelihoods but the reputational damage is huge,” he said. 

Dr Aubrey Cunnington, senior lecturer in paediatric infectious diseases at Imperial College, has been working on point-of-care malaria diagnostics. His £19 million grant came to an end this year but he and his team had counted on an extension and had planned research with partners across Africa.

“The follow-on funding has been completely removed, which takes away a lot of the purpose of last year’s work,” he said.  

“We are hastily exploring other options because we built all these fantastic relationships with partners all around Africa. Some of them have committed much of the last year to working on this project, and they’re going to be left high and dry unless we can find something else. 

“We’re trying to get other sources of funding. There might be some European funding that we could turn to for example. But nothing is guaranteed,” he said. 

Hilary Ranson, professor of vector biology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said her £6.7m four-year grant was cut six months before it was due to end. 

The school is working with researchers in Malawi, Burkina Faso and Cameroon to control the spread of diseases such as dengue, malaria and Zika.  

“Pulling the plug now not only means we will be unable to complete many of the research projects, leaving entire teams seeking additional funding or unemployed, but also means that the key meetings that were due to take place to translate this new knowledge into tools and policies to prevent disease transmission is threatened,” she said. “This is a vast waste of public funds,” she added. 

The government has said that the development budget will be restored next year but researchers say “stop-start” funding is almost as damaging to programmes as funding cuts themselves. 

Prof Piot said: “It’s an illusion that after six months or with the next budget we can start again. That’s not how science works. And it’s an incredible waste of resources.”

Prof Sutherland said that researchers could look for other sources of funding, for example from philanthropic organisations, but this often comes with strings attached. “You’ve got to let people muck about in the lab and allow a bit of the artistic science where people are testing their own hypotheses.

“The Nobel prize given out recently for Crispr genome editing came from a very esoteric and specialised bit of research that some people were doing into obscure bacteria. A private funder wouldn’t fund that kind of thing,” he said. 

He said that the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine had its roots in a malaria jab first developed by researchers at Oxford University, funded by government grants. 

“I have a personal bias towards government funding because it has some level of democratic underpinning,” he added. 

Gareth Jenkins, director of advocacy at campaign group Malaria No More, said the funding cuts were threatening malaria eradication.

“If we’re going to achieve malaria eradication not only do we have to keep up all the interventions that we know work, we have to invent new ones to get us over the line,” he said. 

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security

More Stories
Mysterious X-rays are flaring out of Uranus