Health care today is a science and the EU is the world’s research powerhouse. The EU is investing more and more in research and innovation and the UK benefits from this as a leading science nation and through better treatment and care of our health.
Health research funding
The most recent data show that the UK receives 17% of the total EU health research budget, making it the largest beneficiary. It gets over €570 million, €30 million more than Germany. Those who support Brexit argue that if we stopped paying our contribution to the EU research budget we could spend it on ourselves. In the case of health research we get more out than we put in (we contribute 11% of the research budget but get back 16% of it), but the Brexit camp’s focus solely on funding shows just how little they understand modern medical research.
It’s not about the money
The days when Sir Alexander Fleming could discover penicillin, almost by chance, working alone in his laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital in London are long gone. Modern medical research involves large teams, pooling their expertise. Take genomics. It is not unusual to see several hundred authors on the leading papers. Sure, the money the EU provides is important. But even more important is the access it provides to these networks. This allows our researchers to collaborate with leading experts across Europe but also supports scientists from elsewhere to come here and strengthen our own research capacity. Just look at a few of these examples funded by the European Research Council. Now it would be possible to collaborate with them from outside the EU. Norway, Switzerland, and Israel, among others do. But they pay for the privilege. We would have to as well, so it is not clear that we would see any savings. And we wouldn’t have any say in how the money was spent, as we do now. Again, not a very clever move.
The clinical trials directive
Those supporting Brexit love to talk about red tape. One example they often quote relates to medical research. This is the Clinical Trials Regulation, setting out common rules for testing drugs. They argue that it slows things up, makes the research too costly, and prevents researchers from innovating. They couldn’t be more wrong.
They completely forget that the regulations are seeking to balance two potentially competing objectives. The first is to discover and test new medicines as quickly and easily as possible. The second is to protect the volunteers who agree to be subjects in the trials. It is easy to forget that things do go wrong, with recent examples, both with catastrophic results, in both France and the UK.
Everyone agrees that the EU got the balance wrong the first time round. It placed too much emphasis on safety. But it listened. British researchers played a major role in finding new ways that got the balance right. And the new Regulation does just that. Of course, as a researcher, it can be frustrating doing lots of checks when you just want to get on with the research. But the EU, by which we mean our national ministers meeting in the Council of Ministers, and our MEPs, who decide these things, also have a responsibility to the subjects of research and to patients and have shown that they listen.
More on EU benefits for science, research, innovation and growth
Our colleagues over at Scientists for EU have been promoting the benefits of the EU for science and research for almost a year. For an in depth analysis, have a look at their submission to the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology.