Our response covers seven key questions posed by the survey:
- How can we best increase knowledge and understanding through research, including by achieving bigger breakthroughs?
- How can we maximise the economic, environmental and societal impact of research through effective application of new knowledge?
- How can we attract, retain and develop talented and diverse people to R&D roles? How can we make R&D for everyone?
- How should we ensure that R&D plays its fullest role in levelling up all over the UK?
- How should we strengthen our research infrastructure and institutions in support of our vision?
- How should we most effectively and safely collaborate with partners and networks around the globe?
- How can we harness excitement about this vision, listen to a wider range of voices to ensure R&D is delivering for society and inspire a whole new generation of scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers, and innovators?
How can we best increase knowledge and understanding through research, including by achieving bigger breakthroughs?
The Government’s comprehensive R&D Roadmap and commitment to increase public funding to £22 billion per year by 2024-25 are promising steps and recognise the crucial role that science has in the future success of the UK.
The UK is a moderately sized country but one with extraordinary strengths in science. The BioIndustry Association has described Britain as the third global life sciences cluster after Boston and San Francisco. Supporting and nurturing this cluster requires a system-wide approach.
Critically, scientific collaboration in all its forms must be incentivised and supported. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of collaboration into sharp focus. The disciplines required to tackle the outbreak include the biological and medical sciences, other natural sciences and engineering, the social sciences and the humanities. Academics are working side-by-side with clinicians and businesses. Researchers are also partnering and sharing findings on an international scale. We’ll depend on this type of scientific collaboration as we look to tackle the biggest problems facing society, from climate change and the burden of dementia, to food security for the future.
Alongside support for collaboration, there must be a long-term investment plan for research that transcends political cycles. This should include a mix of funding to support the continuum of basic and applied research, as well as high-risk science. Importantly, researchers must be given the space and time to follow their noses, ask questions and be curious. On receiving the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Crick’s Director of Clinical Research Peter Ratcliffe said that scientists must be “allowed to derive knowledge for its own sake”. His award was based on decades of fundamental research and he did not know at the outset that it could pave the way for new cancer treatments.
The UK is fortunate to have a range of vibrant medical research charities that add to the country’s R&D funding mix and this sector must be protected in the aftermath of COVID. We urge the Government to support the Life Science-Charity Partnership Fund proposed by the Association of Medical Research Charities. The Crick is heavily dependent on the investment we receive from Cancer Research UK.
Along with increased research funding comes a responsibility to better explain its impact and value to both the public and political leaders. We look forward to working with Wellcome and the Campaign for Science and Engineering to digest and act on the findings of their recent Advocating for R&D Investment Report.
How can we maximise the economic, environmental and societal impact of research through effective application of new knowledge?
Research has most impact when people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives collaborate. These interactions should be supported, incentivised and celebrated. As an example, the Crick’s research groups are limited to six to 12 people and our internal structure is not arranged along disciplinary lines. This encourages people from diverse fields and with different technical skills to interact. Our 1,250 scientific staff have expertise in biomedicine, physics, chemistry, engineering and computational science. Our building was designed to encourage joint working, and our strong links with our university partners and beyond expand this network of expertise and facilities.
The Crick is committed to breaking down barriers between basic and clinical research – the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated what partnerships between lab researchers and health professionals can achieve. We run a doctoral and postdoctoral programme for clinicians at different stages of their career. They are embedded in a Crick research group and work alongside scientists who are not clinically qualified. We also run a series of ‘Medicine at the Crick’ events that enable scientists and clinicians to consider the latest advances in biomedicine.
However, the number of clinician scientists working in the UK overall is declining. The Government, as well as research institutions and hospital trusts, must do more to incentivise and inspire talented clinicians to follow this unique pathway, helping to improve translational science.
More broadly, the Crick believes that research translation should focus on speed to impact rather than short-term income generation. To facilitate connections between academia and industry, we work with teams of scientists, chemists and pharmacologists from GSK and AstraZeneca. They work in partnership with Crick staff, enabling ideas to be shared across traditional boundaries and increasing the probability that basic research will eventually benefit patients. Our approach also equips scientists for a career that spans academia and industry – for example, a number of our staff have spent time working in GSK’s R&D hub in Stevenage.
The Crick’s translation team is embedded within the Institute to make this an integral part of our culture and provide easy access to expertise. The team works with a large number of our groups and helps our scientists to think carefully about the best way to apply their research. They support spin-out companies including Achilles Therapeutics and GammaDelta Therapeutics. The team also supports KQ Labs – an accelerator programme currently funded by LifeArc, backing start-ups at the interface of data and health. Its first cohorts of companies are already raising significant funding.
Finally, there must be a degree of agility in the research system so that the sector can capitalise on emerging opportunities and challenges. The Crick was set up to be agile and the benefits of this have been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our staff set aside their normal work to respond. We repurposed our labs using in-house equipment and skills to support the NHS with diagnostic testing. Our scientists are also working to answer some of the most pressing questions about the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen.
How can we attract, retain and develop talented and diverse people to R&D roles? How can we make R&D for everyone?
R&D thrives on diversity and excellence takes many forms. Our Nobel Prize-winning Director Paul Nurse failed O-level French six times, didn’t go straight to university and has reflected that he wasn’t always good at exams.
Today’s young people are surrounded by incredible discoveries and enormous technology advances. But with a shortage of students in the UK taking up careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), helping young people understand, challenge and embrace science, and inspire them to consider science-related careers, has never been more important. It’s imperative that all school children have a high-quality STEM education and fit-for-purpose careers advice. At the Crick, our education programme aims to engage all of the 20,000+ young people at state schools in our home borough of Camden at every stage of their school career. Activities include hands-on investigation, discussion events, work experience and teacher development.
The way that science and academia have worked in the past have not always made for a supportive, inclusive and creative environment. When we established the Crick, we knew that we had an opportunity to do things differently. This is a work in progress, but we’re determined to change research culture for the better.
Firstly, it’s important that all organisations communicate and share best practice so that we can learn from each other. From the Crick’s perspective, we’re committed to ensuring that our senior scientists are also great managers and leaders. We provide mentoring for all of our early-career group leaders, we have a flourishing leadership programme for senior staff, and we’re embracing flexible research careers.
We have an active Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee which reports directly to Crick management. We’re using accreditation schemes such as Athena SWAN and the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index to promote equal opportunities, and we’re working to use principles in the Race Equality Charter to bring about practical changes to improve the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students in our institute.
It’s the responsibility of all of us in the sector to tell the stories of the varied people we employ, fund and support, whatever their gender, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or socioeconomic background. We must also promote different working practices such as part-time appointments, as well as the range of R&D careers available. The Crick employs almost 600 technical specialists across the institute – around half of our scientific workforce. Some are embedded in labs and some work in specialist teams, and they form an important component of our research.
Finally, excellent on-the-job training is fundamental to the development and retention of the UK’s R&D workforce. Opportunities to share skills, experience and expertise are also critical, particularly for those at earlier stages of their career.
How should we ensure that R&D plays its fullest role in levelling up all over the UK?
It is important that the UK R&D system works well right across the country. Pockets of excellence should be identified and supported wherever they are found. Researchers should have access to cutting-edge national infrastructure and facilities such as the Diamond Light Source and the Crick-hosted Medical Research Council Biomedical NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) Centre. There should also be collaborations and connections across the country, and clear communication and signposting of the UK’s science offer.
We all have a part to play and the Crick takes our national role very seriously. Our location, size and international profile make the institute a natural point of contact for research organisations and life science companies wishing to strengthen ties with the UK. We will do all we can to capitalise on this, and connect these international partners to potential collaborators across the UK.
More broadly, our approach to shifting our group leader demographic to early-career researchers has the potential to change how science is conducted in the UK. We aim to attract the best global talent, foster excellence with a focus on training and development, and then export this talent. Our career structure is unusual, with the majority of group leaders working at the institute for no more than 12 years before being supported to find scientific leadership positions elsewhere along with a financial package of support. We hope that talented researchers from around the world will be attracted to the Crick and want to remain in the UK.
How should we strengthen our research infrastructure and institutions in support of our vision?
It is critical that the Government has both a long-term investment plan and comprehensive strategy for UK research – the R&D Roadmap and survey are an important step in delivering this. We are also pleased that the Government is considering how to best invest in new and existing infrastructure.
To maintain Britain’s world-leading position in science, UK-based researchers must have access to cutting-edge national and international infrastructure and facilities. Infrastructure investments should be planned carefully to ensure that they are delivered effectively and efficiently, with appropriate capital as well as operational funding and provisions to support a skilled workforce of researchers and technical staff. Science is unpredictable and technology moves quickly, so the UK must also have the flexibility to invest in new innovations or technologies as they arise.
The Crick is proud to host two major centres of national and international importance. The MRC Biomedical NMR Centre provides spectroscopy facilities to researchers across the UK and the Worldwide Influenza Centre is one of six centres in the world responsible for analysing flu viruses circulating in the human population.
Access to international infrastructure is also critical. No one country alone could bankroll an incredible facility like CERN. Crick scientists regularly use the Diamond Light Source in Harwell, but when it can’t provide a specific service or is down for maintenance, synchrotrons such as the Synchrotron Soleil near Paris and the Swiss Light Source at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Zurich are invaluable.
How should we most effectively and safely collaborate with partners and networks around the globe?
Whether it’s hundreds of researchers or just a few people joining forces, teamwork plays a major role in science. The pandemic has changed research in many ways including a rise in knowledge exchange through preprints and an increase in virtual conferences and seminars. However, face-to-face interactions are often the best way to exchange ideas and spark creative thinking.
The UK and EU have a particularly strong research relationship – not least because geographical proximity enhances collaboration. More than 45% of the Crick’s scientists are EU nationals. Over 90% of the flights booked through our travel portal in 2018 were to continental Europe.
To ensure that European science remains strong after Brexit, we urge negotiators to reach an agreement on UK association to Horizon Europe as quickly as possible. The Crick recently joined over 100 research organisations and individuals calling for compromise to ensure continued participation in this programme. EU Framework Programmes are widely regarded by scientists to be one of the most successful multilateral funding schemes globally, and bring significant benefits to British research. Almost a quarter of the Crick’s group leaders have a European Research Council grant or a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Fellow in their lab.
It is critical that the UK has a fit-for-purpose immigration system that attracts talent from around the world. This must be simple, fast and cheap, and much less bureaucratic than it has been in the past. It should also support the research workforce at all levels and career stages, from technician to PhD student to professor. We welcome the new Global Talent Visa, but the UK visa system is still one of the most expensive when compared to other countries. There also needs to be a concerted Government effort to change its rhetoric to be more welcoming and to engage the many young people and scientists who were overwhelmingly against Brexit and are essential for the future of our country.
The Government should reaffirm its commitment to funding that supports international partnership and knowledge exchange, including the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). For example, through GCRF funding, the Crick has established an African Network that supports outstanding early-career scientists from Africa.
Organisations should also find innovative ways to partner with likeminded organisations wherever they are based. In April 2019, the Crick signed a memorandum of understanding with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) to strengthen our scientific and professional relationship. The partnership is designed to support existing collaborations between Crick and EMBL researchers, and encourage new ones by tapping into EMBL’s network of relationships across Europe. It also enables our institutes to share facilities and expertise.
The Crick has also come together with other international research institutes from Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Asia to form the BRIDGE network. All of the partners have a focus on cutting-edge basic research and education. They include the US-based Rockefeller University, Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, Japan’s Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and Austria’s Institute of Science and Technology.
How can we harness excitement about this vision, listen to a wider range of voices to ensure R&D is delivering for society and inspire a whole new generation of scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers, and innovators?
The best way to harness excitement about R&D and inspire the next generation is to tell the stories of the UK’s excellent scientists and technicians. What makes them tick, why did they choose a career in R&D, and what are the science achievements they’re most proud of? Negative results should also be fully acknowledged, recognising that science advances by eliminating ideas that turn out to be incorrect.
Science communication and public engagement activities should be encouraged and rewarded. Researchers should be supported to develop good communication skills so that they can explain the relevance of their work in an accessible way, using plain English. We’re proud that as well as more traditional activities, our staff talk about their science at comedy gigs, in the pub during the Pint of Science festival, and through Instagram Stories as part of our ‘Meet a Scientist’ series.
More broadly, the Crick believes that everyone should have the opportunity to explore and shape science. As Europe’s biggest biomedical research facility under one roof, our size, location and profile means that we have a unique opportunity to share our work with the general public, schools, our local community and beyond.
Much of the science taking place at the Crick offers profound opportunities to society, but also raises important questions. Research areas such as genome editing, stem cell research and regenerative medicine have social and ethical implications. The public should be able to access and engage with the science that is driving these developments and have a voice in conversations about the direction it takes to build understanding and trust.