Brexit fracking infrastructure away: will health research and innovation collapse?

I’ve just participated in a public debate: “This house believes that Brexit will not affect health innovation”. I was on the opposing site. Have you ever been in a debate where if you win you lose? That’s where I found myself. Because if we won, the future is bleak. And if we lost, the future is even bleaker.

But innovation funding doesn’t just sprout from Brussels.

The most insidious toxins to result from Brexit are poverty of funding and migration of researchers.  At present, much less of the UK’s GDP is spent on innovation than comparable nations like Germany.  Even if UK were to become a non member state of the EU there won’t be any EU handouts.  Most of that goes to Switzerland and Norway.

So if funding won’t come from the EU, will it come from big business? Let’s look at major British institutions. BBC and BT.  Nearly half the BBC’s research budget comes from EU grants. And BT receives 80% of its research funding from the EU. So big businesses are some of the big recipients not donors.

But as we are told Brexit is the choice of the common people not Londoners and big business. The truth is Brexit will hit the health technology industry all over the UK – South West England, outer London, parts of North England and Scotland.

The paucity of business commitment to long term investment is well documented. UK companies contribute just 1% of GDP toward research and development. Germany commits double.

But innovation funding doesn’t just sprout from Brussels.  It has deep roots in universities and institutions across the EU. EC grant funding contributes 1/3 of all the competitive funding awarded to UK research. Oxbridge receives over 40% of their research funding from the EU.  And less research intensive institutions, such as Universities of Greenwich and Wolverhampton receive 2/3rds of their funding from the EU.

Research and innovation in health care is as much about people as it is about products. We know that insiders will always have the inside run and expertise in health research takes a long time to develop.

Researcher teams and innovators won’t wait to see if anything will replace the funding. They will migrate to where the money flows. Brexit is the start of a new round of speed dating.

In 2016 the Singapore government committed over $13 billion USD over five-years to fund health technology and biomedical sciences. The UK commitment is less than half of that. And it is not only foreign countries. Centers are also vying for talent.

The MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas uses its Moonshots program to entice top of the line researchers. It offers about USD$50 million to each one to move their teams to Texas.

Brexit is like a chronic illness. It is inevitable, incurable and at the moment – unfathomable. To move forward, the black soot of xenophobia pouring out of the chimneys of suburbia needs to settle. At the same time the erosion of underfunding will need urgent attention. And the undermined researchers and innovators will have to work harder to reclaim lost ground.

And by the way, we won.

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