June 19, 2017 : James Cant

Brexit is a big deal for medical research

Brexit is a big deal for all of us. Right from the start it’s been a hugely complex issue – and that was before the General Election.  Whether we look at it as private citizens or through the prisms of our professional interests there is no doubt that it will be one of the biggest political and economic shows in town for a generation or more.  For those of us who work in the area of medical research it is even more important.  As Director of BHF Scotland it is undoubtedly the biggest deal of all. 

Why? Well let’s start with some facts and data.  You’d expect that from a medical research charity, wouldn’t you?

The British Heart Foundation was created almost 60 years ago with the principal aim of tackling the scourge of heart disease through research in pursuit of new and better treatments.  In that time we’ve made remarkable progress.  When we were founded seven out of ten people who suffered a heart attack would die – now seven out of ten survive.  When we were founded a baby born with a congenital heart condition had only a one in five chance of surviving to adulthood – now four out of five will live that long.  So we really have turned the tables on heart disease but we know the battle is still far from won.  Heart disease will kill three times as many women as breast cancer.  That’s a pretty shocking statistic that comes as a real shock to most people.  Heart cardio vascular remains the biggest killer not just here in Scotland but on a global level – a dozen people will die prematurely in Scotland today because of heart and circulatory disease. 

Our fight is a global one.  So too is the research that will enable us to win it.  As the world’s biggest independent funder of cardio vascular research the BHF experience offers insights that are applicable globally, across the EU and UK and most certainly in Scotland. Money also certainly matters as we look at the potential impacts of Brexit on the research environment.  Whether in or out of the EU, scientific research can only reach its full potential with the right funding ecosystem, which is a mixture of financial support from government, industry and charitable organisations like the BHF. As part of this interdependent funding pot, between 2007 and 2013, the UK received 8.8 billion euros in EU research funding, having contributed 5.4 billion over the same period.  According to a study commissioned by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, every £1 spent by the UK Government on research and development leads to an increase in private sector productivity by 20p every year.

However the challenge goes beyond money.  The greatest asset in research is human talent – great ideas from amazing minds lie at the heart of research and neither can readily be trapped by boundaries or bureaucracy.  These experts meet, travel, go to conferences and seminars, talk, compare notes, make breakthroughs together.  It’s how they work and it’s inspiring to watch.  Top researchers are a lot like sports stars in their own right – at the top of their game they ‘galacticos’ in their field, their signatures and skills are sought after around the world.

In this incredibly competitive environment Scotland punches way above its weight in research as a whole – in cardio vascular research, spectacularly so.  The BHF has committed to spend over £63M in institutions across Scotland, in  Aberdeen, Dundee, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Glasgow.  Of the BHF’s six Centres of Research Excellence across the UK two are in Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow).  A virtuous circle for cardio vascular has developed in Scotland and world class researchers come from all over the world to become part of the cutting edge work taking place in our midst.  The value it adds to our educational establishments and NHS Scotland is immense.  Yet it exists in a delicate ecosystem which is already being affected by the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.  Overseas researchers will inevitably be cautious about considering the UK or Scotland as the next stage in their career path, while partners from the EU have inevitably placed the implications of Brexit at the top of their risk register when considering joint funding applications with UK institutions.

As an organisation our commitment is clear.  We will continue to lead the fight against heart disease as a global player.  Whatever Brexit brings, we will deal with it because we have to. In fact, we’ve already made a start – working with our colleagues in other medical research charities to provide a voice for science and emphasise its importance in the upcoming negotiations.  We will continue to be positive and pragmatic, we will find the best ways to meet the challenges.  What we need from governments – of all forms – is a similarly proactive approach to make the best of whatever evolving circumstances emerge.

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by James Cant