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Unilateralism won't serve the UK's "national interests"

We need to work in multilateral cooperation to address the global challenges that affect us all

08 April 2021

The UK is justifiably proud of ‘punching above its weight’ in the international research arena. Cutting-edge research on issues of global importance, like clean water, public health, and climate change, contributes heavily to its respectability and heft.

Clearly, the UK government values this research and innovation: it has committed to increasing R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, turning the UK into a ‘science superpower’. Despite a looming recession, it is investing £800 million into a new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) – to fund high-risk high-reward scientific research.

Which is why, in this context, the violent cuts to the Official Development Assistance (ODA) are at best short-sighted, and at worst a dangerous misstep that risks turning the government’s agenda for a ‘Global Britain’ into a farce.

£120 million is about to be pulled from UK Research and Innovation. The same funding body that supported the early development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is losing almost 70% of its budget.

In 2019, £200 million was awarded to 12 International Research Hubs – flagship programmes that placed UK research at the heart of tackling some of the world’ greatest challenges. These Hubs speak directly to the UK government’s aid strategy and are a key vehicle for UK science diplomacy at a time when Britain looks to build trade and collaboration links.

These Hubs are now expected to operate on a third of their budget. They are being set up to fail.

Defunding these research collaborations may play to ‘popular narratives’ but there will be impacts both at home and abroad. UK universities attract brilliant researchers from across the globe; the vicious nature of these cuts undermines their trust in UK institutions and the country risks losing their expertise and knowledge; of diminishing our capacity to conduct world-leading research.

To renege on these commitments implies an inward-looking, isolationist Britain. The cuts will destroy international partnerships with businesses, governments, and third sector, as well as the UK’s reputation as a reliable and trustworthy business partner. The cuts expose the hollowness of the UK government’s vision of a ‘Global Britain’ centred on openness for prosperity, multilateral solutions to global issues, and positioning the UK as a force for good.

The challenges the world faces do not respect geopolitical borders. As the UK Climate Change Committee noted in their 2017 Risk Assessment: “impacts will be imported to the UK through migration, the price and safety of food and other commodities, changes in the patterns of trade, disruption to global supply chains, and risks to overseas investments”.  

For Britain to be a global leader, we must tackle these challenges together. We cannot achieve a ‘science superpower’ status by closing our doors, and ignoring the importance of research collaboration while clamouring for international trade deals.

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