Shunning EU science programmes will allow us to embrace world-class scientific collaboration

Shunning EU science programmes will allow us to embrace world-class scientific collaboration

The below is co-authored by Professor Keith Lewis, a Director of Sciovis.

Sir Paul Nurse has regularly written and appeared on the BBC describing what a disaster it will be for British science when we leave the EU and that this would clearly be worse if we exited without a deal.

Amongst his reasons is that the number of EU scientists working in the UK would plummet and we would no longer have the EU science programme funding. The eminent scientist, Sir Andre Geim, points out that his long-term collaborator, Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, has already left the UK to work in Singapore, allegedly because of Brexit. But others have pointed out that career advancement and the quality of Singaporean science could have been the compelling factors. One might ask why Sir Konstantin chose Singapore, which is an even more distant third country than the UK will be after Brexit… In a recent Today programme interview, Sir Paul actually led with the correct idea that the UK drives European research. For example, the UK was able to announce its £270m Quantum Technology programme in 2013, whilst it took another five years for the EU to initiate its own Quantum Flagship.

Another constant argument is that we get more out of the peer-reviewed Framework or Horizon programmes than we put in. This is repeated many times, with no sense of irony that it is still our money and, overall, it is only partially recycled back to us. To the extent that this is partially true, it should be of no surprise given that after we leave, only one of the top ten research universities in Europe will be in an EU country (Sweden), as eight of them are in the UK! Nowhere do the high-profile spokesmen for the scientific community point out that we get by far the least of the much larger R&D Structural Fund compared to any other country and that the difference dwarfs any benefit we get from the peer review programmes. For example, available figures in 2016 show that the UK received approximately £1.91 billion, compared to approximately £5 billion each for Portugal, Germany and Spain, with Italy receiving £6 billion and Poland more than £9 billion.

Perhaps it is time to look at the whole of the EU science programme more objectively.

Collaboration/harmonisation undermines innovation. The EU selects areas of technology to support and emphasise with collaboration being the driving spirit, rather than the pursuit of truly novel research. Much of the activity can be construed as ‘me-too’ work and is not truly ground breaking. Indeed, the whole point of these European collaborations appears to be promotion of harmonisation more than scientific innovation. The rules often state there has to be one lead country and they mandate participants from other states (often ‘weak sisters’) as part of the collaboration. As one colleague put it, such EU programmes could be interpreted as being a mechanism for achieving new heights of mediocrity.

Bureaucracy reigns supreme. The more closely one looks at EU science and research programmes, the more astonishing it is that leading scientists should cling so vehemently to the concept. Analysis of the Framework Programme shows that it has become a bureaucratic nightmare, costing ever more to administer programmes that are often decided politically, with peer review being used to rubber stamp the decision. Instead, we should look forward to gaining our independence from these restrictive practices and to embracing a more open approach in which we have much more say, along the lines practised in the USA. Defenders of these peer review programmes argue that the EU is evolving mechanisms to deal with fraud, unlike the structural funds where endemic fraud is still a major issue, as highlighted in the EU’s annual OLAF report.

Programmes are not exclusive. It is often overlooked that a country does not have to be a member of the European Union political structure in order to participate in relevant, useful and synergistic programmes on an ad hoc basis. The EU usually is happy for third countries to participate if they provide the relevant financial support. Many countries currently participate in these programmes, including Switzerland, whose scientists have a major leading role, and Israel, which is extremely unlikely ever to join the EU. In the USA, for example, MIT has participated in such EU programmes although at least one of its major science departments has withdrawn, citing excessive bureaucracy and having obtained little value from its participation.

Harmonisation supports protectionism. The underlying drive to encourage collaboration (e.g. harmonisation of protocols, techniques, etc.) and EU Directives has increased commercial protectionism and done an extraordinary amount of damage to British clinical research. The effect of the Clinical Trials Directive has been so draconian that even the EU has had to admit that changes are needed (note, the EU normally makes it clear that no changes can be made to any Directive whatsoever once it has been enacted!). The Clinical Trials Directive was put forward in the spirit of harmonisation but was, in fact, a mechanism to make trials so horrendously expensive that only Big Pharma could afford to get their products registered. This conveniently made it extremely difficult for smaller companies and generics to compete. Unfortunately, at a stroke, this killed clinical academic research into innovative treatments that could be applied rapidly to the clinic.

Take the specific case of a promising treatment for pancreatic cancer that currently has a dreadful prognosis. Even if a clinical trial can be mounted and is successful to the point where there is no reason to prevent licensing a non-toxic agent that increases pancreatic cancer survival, the EU mechanism demands another randomised study on a scale that is commercially unaffordable. However, once outside the EU, it should be possible to provide a licence for further availability to such agents. They could then be made available to the thousands of patients who would benefit from such products, particularly as several of these are non-toxic – especially compared to the agents currently approved.

Currently, Big Pharma is developing oncology drugs that rarely cost less than £5,000 per month – due to the cost of trials. These agents often are effective in a wide variety of tumour types, albeit with a low response rate. Even though it is becoming apparent that additional benefit may be achieved by combining them, the cost is such that no healthcare system can possibly afford them, especially in an ageing population where one in two will suffer from some form of cancer. You might think that this is the same all across Europe. Wrong.

Patients suffer from directives. It is surprising to find that German doctors practise in a much freer environment and do not feel constrained by such directives. This is due to an agreement in the German constitution incorporated after the war regarding freedom for doctors to treat patients how they see fit. Thus, there are treatments previously available in the UK that are now forbidden under EU directives as interpreted by UK law. Patients can still receive these treatments – but only if they go to Germany. At a European research meeting, while addressing the problem of these clinical directives, an Italian participant stated that they regard these not as EU clinical directives but as ‘English laws’, on the grounds that only the English obey them!

The ability to fund and lead our own work and collaborate with whoever is the best and most appropriate should open up tremendous opportunities for truly ground-breaking and world-class scientific collaboration that could include America, Australia and other Commonwealth countries – as opposed to compulsory EU collaborations. In spite of our relatively small population, technological innovation is an integral part of our British history that has given rise to the most incredible inventions, from the steam train to the jet engine and from the telephone to the television – not to forget discovery of the DNA double helix. The list goes on and on: none of these were done with EU funding! This begs the following question to Sir Paul and his fellow Science Base funders: “If they had control of the funds the UK contributes to EU science programmes, would they continue to allocate them to current and future EU programmes as the Commission may decide?”

Significantly, the most recent (March 2019) Office for Official Statistics report on gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) points out that funding of UK R&D from overseas sources fell for the third consecutive year during the period 2014 to 2017. Indeed, it also clearly demonstrates that the business community performs by far the largest contribution (68%) of the nation’s R&D activities.