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Counting the cost

Coronavirus brings home the need for research investment

This week’s budget, the first of Boris Johnson’s majority government, has for months been touted by research policy-watchers as the one that will lay bare how serious the government is about raising investment in R&D—especially since any promises of cash will come amid the financial uncertainty of Brexit. But it now arrives against the dark backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, which has both highlighted arguments for raising research investment and, on the other hand, ramped up economic anxiety.

Across the world universities are shifting teaching online to stop the disease spreading among students, while research to fight the virus is underway day and night. The government has pledged tens of millions to develop coronavirus diagnostics and vaccines, but the UK and other developed nations are under pressure to find more cash. The World Health Organization has put the extra global funding needed to fight the virus and the Covid-19 disease it causes at $8bn (£6.1bn). 

The situation speaks to a mismatch between research needs and current funding levels which, in the UK, cuts across not only the fight against an infectious disease like Covid-19, but a multitude of other areas in health, climate change and emerging technologies. The situation also demonstrates the international nature of research needed to combat the biggest challenges. Even if a UK-based lab perfects a vaccine, the country lacks the capacity to manufacture it at the scale required. Big problems need global solutions, a message that some in post-Brexit Britain’s government seem reluctant to heed.

Crises like coronavirus will always require an emergency response, but when virologists warn that the outlook for the UK has been worsened by a past lack of investment, it hammers home that a legacy of constrained research funding cannot be overturned overnight. 

The coronavirus, literally a life or death situation, powerfully illustrates this. The argument also applies to the various areas that the government has trumpeted as critical to the UK’s future economic and social success.

But with coronavirus plunging financial markets into turmoil— and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warning that global growth could halve this year, even before its worst-case scenario—how much the prime minister and his rookie chancellor Rishi Sunak will be willing to commit to strategic, long-term R&D is a tough call. And the government’s decision to split the role of universities and science minister creates the sense that measures to spur university-led research—including preserving the teaching income that cross-subsidises it—may not be as in vogue as those aimed at the private sector.

Sunak will need to prioritise propping up an economy that is taking a battering due to the virus. If things worsen and the outbreak stretches into the second half of the year, this may include universities deprived of income from foreign students.

The sector may have to look at today’s budget less as an end in itself and more a signal of things to come. Even though that will mean problems being kicked further down the road. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight