The Brexit threat to science: the Wellcome Trust’s Open Letter

May 1, 2017 at 12:30 pm (Anti-Racism, campaigning, economics, Europe, internationalism, posted by JD, science)

Shiraz Socialist doesn’t necessarily agree with everything in this Open Letter – not least the defeatist acceptance that Brexit is inevitable. Nonetheless, it contains a clear warning  that the isolationism and racism inherent in Brexit is a threat to science, and human progress in general:

Wellcome’s Chair, Eliza Manningham-Buller, and Director, Jeremy Farrar, have written to the leaders of all UK political parties with MPs in Westminster ahead of the upcoming general election on 8 June.

This includes the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The letter sets out three areas the next government should prioritise to sustain Britain’s role as world leader in science and research, through exit from the EU and beyond:

  • strong investment in research, ideally at the same level as other innovative countries who spend comparably more than the UK
  • a commitment to securing associate membership of EU science schemes such as Horizon 2020, which encourages collaboration across borders
  • a migration system that is straightforward and welcoming to researchers, technicians, innovators, and their families, at all career stages and from all over the world.

Full text of the letter

The government that is elected on June 8 will determine the direction that the UK will take through exit from the European Union and beyond. Among the issues at stake are Britain’s future positioning on the global stage, and its historic role as a world-leading centre for outstanding scientific discovery that transforms life and health.

As the world’s second highest-spending charitable foundation, committed to supporting science and improving health, Wellcome is proud to invest the majority of our £1bn annual spending in the UK. This letter sets out the conditions that we believe are necessary to sustain the scientific excellence that allows us to invest here so confidently, and which advances health and economic prosperity.

Wellcome’s mission has long been enhanced by a shared understanding with UK governments of all political complexions that research and innovation accomplish more when nations and their scientists collaborate across borders. We believe that the next UK government will face an important choice. It can continue this understanding, looking outward as an open nation and committing to global partnerships and institutions. This is critical to taking on fundamental scientific questions, and challenges such as pandemics, drug-resistant infections, climate change and mental health, which no single nation can address alone. Or it can allow the UK’s focus to drift inward, by commission or omission, which would close doors to international collaboration and talent.

The cross-party commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on Official Development Assistance is a clear expression of this country’s intent to be a constructive international partner. If the next government wishes to sustain Britain’s global posture and scientific excellence it will also have to take the right decisions in three other areas.

First, we know that science and innovation are reliable drivers of economic growth and sustainable employment when the right conditions are in place. These conditions include strong investment, which would be secure if the UK met the international benchmark of spending 3% of GDP on R&D across the public and private sectors. They include the UK’s unique dual system of flexible support through both research grants and wider infrastructure funding, which has given the UK four of the world’s top ten universities, and regulation that promotes innovation, builds public confidence, and facilitates access to wider markets. And they include access to capital that is patient enough to allow small companies founded on scientific ingenuity to grow into large ones.

Next, we know that science thrives when funding incentives encourage collaboration across borders. This makes sharp minds sharper, and drives up standards everywhere. The EU’s Framework Programme funding does this exceptionally well, stimulating excellence and partnership where many schemes with similar intent have failed. It would be a mistake to walk away from a system that the UK has worked so hard to get right over many years, and from which we could continue to receive more funding than we contribute, or to replace it with purely domestic funding that does not promote collaboration as effectively. The next government should commit to securing associate membership of EU science schemes, as it builds on their success to forge similar global partnerships.

Finally, we know that great science is built on great talent – wherever it is from. As the UK’s migration system changes, it must be straightforward and truly welcoming to researchers, technicians, innovators, and their families, at all career stages and from all over the world. We must be open to talent not because there is a shortage of home-grown scientists – but because the arrival of people with new ideas and fresh thinking lifts standards and gets better results. Such openness is entirely compatible with achieving greater control over total migrant numbers. It could be achieved if the next government were to work with the academic institutions and high-tech businesses that it will rely on for growth to design the migration system that can enable this to happen, including sponsoring appropriate candidates for visas.

The world is watching how the UK faces this crucial moment in its history, and the tone and substance of the approach you choose will help determine the UK’s place in the world for generations to come. We urge you to grasp the opportunity for the UK to grow as a constructive, enthusiastic international partner, for science, research and health in Europe and around the world.

Yours sincerely,

Eliza Manningham-Buller
Chair, Wellcome Trust

Jeremy Farrar
Director, Wellcome Trust


  1. Mick said,

    Exactly, Vote Conservative! Labour always ruins the economy, so science will end up with less anyway. The letter should go to the EU itself, rather than British parties if Brexit is the core of this little diatribe. Dabbling in politics is a dangerous thing for those whose expertise lies elsewhere.

    The EU wants a hard Brexit, not Theresa May – she merely reacts to the childish posturing of the likes of Merkel or Junker because vengeance suits the EU’s bent.

    So, if the EU’s serious on having an amicable deal for both sides – which they aren’t – there’s no conceivable reason that Wellcome still can’t get hold of EU funds through the conduit of some special deposit account deal the Government still pays into. Theresa May’s open to just suchh ideas and boasts of them.

  2. Robert said,

    My own experience of the Wellcome trust involves a handful of bureaucrats inside and outside academia (hanging around in the shadows) ensuring that no money was paid out for humanities and social sciences work except to people (if that is the word) whose work was so confined within the neo-mafia of academic approval — applications to foster invaluable historical work could not be granted on the merits of some cases but others were rewarded when the strictly starched official reports matched the imposed bureaucratised and mechanised standards. .

    I hope the organisation has learned rather more, and presume the level of silliness and naievety I noted was not carried over where direct medical efforts were involved.

  3. Glasgow Working Class said,

    Hard Brexit is the best way out…. No money paid to the corrupt EU Mafia. If they want to trade then fine. The World has existed a long time without them. I doubt the EU will attempt to do the old Germam starvation tactic and blockade us…Germany who really run and manage the EU will pay a price for beligerance.

    • Mick said,

      There’s little more contemptible than saboteurs hiding behind the mask of innocent concern.

      Gina Miller and various Lords would still block Brexit in a heartbeat if they knew they could get away with it.

      The People have spoken, better or worse. And where Communist Manifesto-reading leftists call names, they only prove they are on the wrong side of history again.

  4. LeoXamine said,

    A few points I’d like to address in the Wellcome Trust’s Open Letter.

    One of its goals it states is: “a migration system that is straightforward and welcoming to researchers, technicians, innovators, and their families, at all career stages and from all over the world.”

    Discrimination based on migrant’s educational levels alert! By the way, if that group is so smart and educated then obviously it occurred before their attempt to migrate. As for sharing information that’s a great! But can’t they can use things like Skype, the Internet, letters, phones to do that?

    “Wellcome’s mission has long been enhanced by a shared understanding with UK governments of all political complexions that research and innovation accomplish more when nations and their scientists collaborate across borders.”

    Compare that sentence to the first one I quoted. Scientific “collaboration” here means open borders for scientists and their families.

    And then finally an admission! The real reason is because “Such openness is entirely compatible with achieving greater control over total migrant numbers. ”

    The great minds we allow in will help us in in how to better plot to keep the lumpen proletariat non-scientists out!

    Of course there develops a problem. If we don’t kick the newly established scientists out at some point, that whole “got to hop borders to be a schmart scientist” process will end.

    Lastly we should take in foreign scientists because they posses “new ideas and fresh thinking.” Apparently those are things that native born citizens aren’t capable of.

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