A ‘double whammy’ of concern

Ella Rhodes on EU funding and the importance of science.

Brexit is coming, and with it comes much uncertainty in countless areas of life. There are particular fears for science funding in the aftermath of the exit, with many institutions relying on large EU grants and international collaboration. Psychology may be one of the more vulnerable subject areas.

Between 2007 and 2013 the UK received €8.8 billion from the EU, and contributed €5.4 billion, for research, development and innovation, making it one of the largest recipients of research funding in the union. While the government has announced that EU-funded Horizon 2020 projects that were applied for before the referendum would be underwritten, and budgeted an extra £4.7 billion for science, research and development over four years, many at higher education institutes are concerned for their future.  

The uncertainty doesn’t just lie in funding: indeed the House of Commons Education Committee in its recent report on Brexit and higher education said the uncertainty surrounding EU staff and students, regarding issues such as residence and tuition fees, needed to be reduced immediately. Similarly, many have been advocating to remove overseas students from net migration targets to ensure our universities will continue to attract EU students and those outside the continent.

We spoke to Patrick Leman, interim Executive Dean at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN – King’s College London) about the future, the state of science, and how we can make the public at large believe in the importance of research.

The IoPPN is Europe’s largest research centre for mental health research. Professor Leman, who said there is still uncertainty over funding post-Brexit, said: ‘It seems increasingly likely, if we get a hard Brexit, that we won’t remain automatically connected to the raft of EU funding streams that the UK has benefited from. Then, of course, the funding for science inevitably becomes more a matter of parochial UK concerns, which arguably offers less protection to innovation and independence than it had as part of a larger EU budget with 27 nations lobbying for a broader range of scientific and social agendas.’

Around £36 million of the IoPPN’s research funding came from the EU over the past five years, which is close to 10 per cent of its overall research income in the same period. However, some other institutions receive as much as 91 per cent of research income from EU funding schemes. So while the IoPPN is less dependent on EU funding than others, thanks partly to large-scale funding from UK bodies such as the Medical Research Council, NIHR and UKRI, Leman said there was ‘a general sadness’ due to possible implications for the international diversity of UK science, the sharing of expertise, and our reputation overseas.  

Leman said any loss in funding means that impactful and important research doesn’t happen. He said: ‘The percentage figure for IoPPN rather understates the loss to the country because that’s science that’s being done on things like psychosis, depression and dementia. You can do a lot with £36 million of research to solve problems in those areas, and it is the medium- and long-term societal benefit of that research that’s vulnerable after Brexit. Those institutions which have been heavily dependent on EU funding, and that includes many psychology departments, may struggle.’

Psychology received almost 26 per cent of its research income from competitive EU grants between 2006 and 2015. Leman explained that the proportion of EU grants going towards the cognitive- and social-science-focused studies in psychology was much higher in the UK compared with the other big European research nations, France and Germany. ‘British institutions have done particularly well in terms of gaining EU funding for the social sciences and humanities. The knock-on effect we may see depends on what flavour of government we get and what they will prioritise. The mood music so far, as I read it, is they will prioritise health, physical and life sciences, because those are the areas where, arguably, they believe research can make greatest impact. Whether a future government reproduces that proportionately high-level investment in UK social sciences and humanities is questionable.’  

The US faces its own science crisis, with Trump proposing cuts to a number of institutes and agencies. Leman said that there was a ‘double whammy’ of concern for academics and scientists in the UK and USA: ‘Like any business you want stability in funding in order to plan and develop, and at present we have uncertainty. But there’s also the undermining of the very basis and legitimacy of a lot of scientific thought. It’s difficult to know how to take on, as an individual, a political context that appears to be moving towards devaluation of the importance of science. This is not a matter of the science community engaging with itself, “virtue signalling” on the benefits of science to like-minded followers on Twitter, but about getting the message across to society through properly impactful research, and communicating and disseminating the importance of science.’

By demonstrating the usefulness of our research, and understanding governments, Leman said we can have impact: ‘Governments want to solve important problems, and all areas of psychology can do so much for that. But we need to convince governments, as well as the people voting for them, that science is important and that psychology, as a science, is important too.’

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber