Sunday, June 13

If the government is serious about “global Britain,” why is it cutting funding for research? | Fiona tomley

GRAMgiven the ambitions outlined in the government’s integrated review of “Global Britain in a competitive era”He could be forgiven for thinking that research into the causes, detection and control of emerging infectious diseases with pandemic potential was being taken very 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 “push for a more scientific approach to the problems we face.” Or so he says.

In the end, the reality is very different. The integrated review was published five days later UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the body representing the seven UK Research Councils, published a open letter explaining that their official development assistance (ODA) allocation had been drastically reduced and that there was now a shortfall of £ 120 million in pledged funds for research that was already in place. This has left the program I run, the One Health Poultry Hub, with a 70% cut in its financing.

We are a network of 27 institutions in 10 countries. The work is far from glamorous and requires careful planning and coordination between teams from many disciplines, including the social, veterinary, medical, biological and computational sciences. We study the main poultry production sites in South and Southeast Asia, mapping and quantifying the movements of chickens and people through different production and distribution networks, conducting interviews to understand what limits or governs the actions of the people involved in the raising, marketing and slaughter of chickens. and consumption, collecting samples from chickens, people and the environment, isolating and characterizing bacteria and viruses that can pass from chickens to people and antimicrobial resistance genes.

The integration of these data lines allows us to understand how and where pathogens that make people sick arise, amplify and transmit, to identify the behaviors and systems that present the greatest risks and to test intervention strategies that reduce the probability that diseases spread to people.

Our center works on the public health risks associated with the 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 one of the top 10 threats to global health and that the former minister conservative Jim O’Neill predicted it would cause a potential 10 million deaths by 2050. Covid-19 is the most recent pandemic to emerge from human-animal interactions in food production systems, but it will not be the last. Unfortunately, I have spent the last month trying to determine which parts of our research program are expendable, when the truth is that none of them are.

The center is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which draws on the expertise of the world’s leading UK researchers to work with peer experts in developing countries and tackle the most difficult and persistent global challenges. GCRF does not fit a stereotypical image of UK aid. It is a rigorously reviewed and managed collection of cutting-edge programs fostering international partnerships, building common approaches and supporting the UK’s positioning at the heart of global research, innovation and knowledge sharing. One of the most frustrating and saddest things for the centers is that they are doing precisely what the government promises as a priority for “global Britain”. yet almost simultaneously it has cut our budgets.

In mid-2017, GCRF asked UK researchers to come up with ambitious ways to tackle the most intractable challenges facing humanity: climate change, conflict, population growth, urbanization, rising inequalities, and global health. The response was overwhelming, with some 250 proposals submitted. These types of programs are rightly subject to levels of scrutiny and approval, and what followed was 16 months of reviews, refinements, and in-depth interviews. It was in direct contrast, for example, with the speed with which £ 37 billion of public money went to UK Covid-19 testing and contact tracing. At the end of this highly competitive process, a dozen interdisciplinary research centers were funded over five years with a UKRI investment of £ 200 million. They thrown out in March 2019 as: “Our response to some of the world’s most pressing challenges … to make the world and the UK safer, healthier and more prosperous.”

Skip to March 31, 2021 and UKRI informed center directors that all center budgets would be reduced by approximately 70% by 2021-22, which would take effect the following day. But he was not an April fool. If we didn’t like it, they told us we could cancel our grants.

A key pillar of GCRF is the vision that strengthening international research and innovation networks provides an agile response to emergencies. This was certainly the case for One Health Poultry Hub. When Covid-19 appeared just a year into our program, we quickly diverted resources to Covid response and investigation in the UK and Asia, while maintaining the ability to continue our original plans, recognizing that the threats from avian influenza and RAM are still as serious as ever. .

We don’t know why the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy took such a deep cut at GCRF; the ODA commitment went from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income, but the 12 centers were reduced by more than double this reduction. Do the department and government know more widely what the centers are set up for? The associations they represent? The reputation they have? Do ministers acknowledge the impact these cuts are having on the UK’s international reputation as a trusted partner? Despite attempts and offers to engage in discussions and work with the government to forge a shared vision for the future, center directors and other GCRF grant recipients have so far had no constructive responses. We can only hope this will change as the dust settles; Certainly my door remains open so that we can rebuild better together.

Professor Fiona Tomley is Director of One Health Poultry Hub

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