Foundations and Brexit: A view from… medical research

In this series, we are taking a closer look at what Brexit means for foundations. We will include perspectives from across the UK and from funders with a number of specialisms and approaches. Although the situation changes daily and the implications are still uncertain, this series will explore some of the thoughts and reactions from within the sector. The sixth article in our series comes from Pierre Espinasse, General Manager of the Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research.


A view from… medical research

UK medical and scientific research is currently among the best in the world, attracting the top scientists from across the globe for its infrastructure, environment and quality. Most of the research takes place in universities, often in collaboration with hospital trusts. Funding comes from a variety of different sources – UK government, industry, the charitable sector, which is a major contributor, but also. of course, from the EU through programmes such as Horizon 2020. These are multi-billion euro programmes that focus on networking and collaborating across Europe. The UK is a very successful participant, and is a net beneficiary, with UK universities getting around €800 million a year in European research grants. The research we fund depends on an environment where there are also all these other sources of funding.

Non-EU states such as Norway, Switzerland and Israel do participate in the EU programmes as ‘associated states’, but the worry post-Brexit is that the UK would no longer have any say in how those programmes are structured. Other EU member states may well say the UK has to pay all its own costs. So the big question is, will Brexit lead to a reduction in European funding, or if the UK government says it will make good, where is that money coming from?

Leaving the EU is going to cost the government more in terms of medical research. In the face of that huge uncertainty we are just carrying on as normal, as are the scientists we fund.

Freedom of movement of people is a huge issue in medical and scientific research. The UK field is very multinational, drawing the top scientists from the EU and across the world. In the larger universities, around 20% of scientists are from the other EU member states. Currently, they can come to the UK, bring their families, with no impediments, and build their careers here. There are anecdotal stories of top EU scientists questioning whether to take a post in the UK because they don’t know what is going to happen, whether they will be able to develop their career in the UK, and even whether they would still be welcome. The scientists working here from other countries are probably not quite as many, but many of them face visa problems. UK science will become poorer if we can’t attract the best.

But it’s not just freedom of movement. There is also the question of networking, collaboration, and plugging in to the wider European research community.

There is a flip side, and some opportunities presented by Brexit. Culturally and historically, UK research has always been very innovative, with a more liberal, risk-based approach to regulation. In some other European states, and maybe at European Commission level, there can be a more regulatory approach to everything, and the 2004 EU directive on clinical trials has put a dampener on the UK’s ability to develop new drugs and new treatment models – we now carry out just 2% of global clinical trials. While accepting the need to align our regulatory approach in order to collaborate with European partners, perhaps this is an opportunity in some areas to develop a lighter-touch regulatory environment that will allow things to happen more freely, and more speedily.

As an independent funder, I don’t see there is much we can do, although associations of funders and universities are lobbying. But we do want to be sure that we are not replacing money – if the current funding is not replaced by government, there is no way we could fund the gap. Our aim is to find cures and treatments, and we want to fund the best researchers, the best PhD students. If they are no longer here in the UK, where will they be?

The government has made noises that it recognises the value to the economy and society of being able to maintain an excellent record in our scientific and medical research base, but obviously there are going to be all sorts of pressures on that. The university sector lobbied very hard to remain in the EU. From a medical research point of view, the benefits of staying by far outweighed the benefits of leaving, but we have to live with what we have.


Pierre Espinasse
General Manager
The Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research


Other articles in this series:

A view from… Scotland 
A view from... arts & culture funding 
A view from... science funding 
A view from... Northern Ireland 
A view from... Wales  
A view from... environmental funding 
A view from... Europe 

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