UK General Election 2017: our letter to party leaders

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:

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