OPINION: Science is uniquely well placed to develop UK’s soft power

Prof Ian Charles of the Quadram Institute in Norwich 

Prof Ian Charles of the Quadram Institute in Norwich - Credit: Submitted

Professor Ian Charles, director of the Quadram Institute in Norwich explains how science is helping around the globe

By any definition, UK science appears very much in vogue.

A poll by YouGov last month reported the British public view science and medicine as the nation’s most valuable export and that nearly three quarters of Britons feel it’s important we continue investing in the prevention of global diseases.

Politicians also rightly see science as a vital economic and social driver of progress and productivity. The UK’s efforts on SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development and roll out have been lauded as a shining example of medical science delivering life-saving benefits in a remarkably short timescale.

The Conservative manifesto at the last election in 2019 committed to a target of 2.4% of GDP expenditure on research and development (combined public and private sector spend), bringing the UK up from 1.74%, and getting us in line with the OECD average by 2027.

The Labour Party at its 2021 conference repeated the 2019 pledge of 3% of GDP expenditure on research and development by 2030. With the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review just round the corner, the UK’s scientific community will, of course, be watching with close interest to see the lie of the land.

Realising the post-Brexit ambitions of Global Britain will require investment to continue for UK science to maintain its impressive competitiveness.

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The unveiling this summer of the Government’s Life Sciences Vision is a welcome focus on life sciences working alongside the clinical research potential of the NHS, and public, charitable, and private sectors, to focus on translational science improving the healthspan as well as the lifespan of people in this country and elsewhere.

Funding core science facilities and fundamental science is critical but we must also ensure those investments are made in networked, integrated, science centres. My own institute, the Quadram Institute on the Norwich Research Park, is one such centre.

Under one roof we bring together NHS patient care and clinical research, university researchers, and some of the best scientists from across the globe.

It’s already proved a powerful combination leading to real-world impact. The pandemic has highlighted the value of our collaborative, multi-disciplinary model. Clinicians and scientists based in the Quadram Institute have run a very successful COVID-19 vaccine trial, generated an exciting, novel vaccine delivery technology, and with the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium have developed rapid, efficient genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 to help protect the public.

The Quadram Institute effectively acts as a scientific hub with spokes extending to and from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and other UK hospitals, the University of East Anglia and other academic centres, public health, across the Norwich Research Park, and branching out into our global science networks.

Just one example of that global hub and spoke science is the work my colleague Professor Robert Kingsley and his team have doing with Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care through their National Microbiology Reference Laboratory (NMRL), sequencing genetic material of positive samples from coronavirus patients, between March and June 2020.

Key objectives for Zimbabwe’s NMRL are to help understand initial transmission of the disease, gain insight into domestic transmission of the virus, add context to the regional and global scientific data and to evaluate the role genomic sequencing could play in analysing infection outbreaks.

As a result, Zimbabwe’s NMRL has successfully sequenced genomes to help develop what could be called a “family tree,” or phylogenetic analysis, for the virus in Zimbabwe, based on the whole genome sequencing of positive samples taken from coronavirus patients over 120 days.

At the Quadram we are doing similar work with other low-income and middle-income countries.

To date, we have sequenced 50,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes, provided expertise directly to eight countries around the world, and provided analysis training to 133 scientists from 32 countries. This is exactly the kind of soft power the UK should nurture on the global stage. The health challenges we face are global and require multinational action.

This “hub and spoke” model of translational science brings together the very best of UK science, the NHS, UK universities, alongside the support of charities and the private sector. Our hope is that with the right level of investment the undoubted global power of UK science will continue to thrive and benefit people at home and abroad.

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