U.K. starts handing out £4.7B boost to science funding

The Palace of Westminster. (Courtesy of Diliff CC BY-SA 2.5)

The United Kingdom has unveiled bioscience research investments facilitated by the government’s commitment to provide £4.7 billion ($5.9 billion) more in R&D funding over the next five years. Officials at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have awarded cash to projects tackling topics including the role of epigenetics and the immune system in aging.

Many of the projects set to receive some of the £319 million the BBSRC will hand out over the next five years are unrelated to drug development, reflecting the organization’s genesis in the merger of the Agricultural and Food Research Council and status as the main public funder of nonmedical bioscience in the U.K. But some of the cash will go toward research programs with implications for understanding and treating human diseases.

Cambridge’s Babraham Institute has secured support for three programs related to aging. One will look at how people can stay healthy as they get older, while the others will focus on the role epigenetics and the immune system play in aging. The immune system work is specifically looking at how understanding those mechanisms can extend healthy life spans. The epigenetics team has a broader brief covering the role the process plays in development and aging.

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John Innes Centre, a plant and microbial science specialist, has also secured funding for a project with implications for drug development, although most of the programs it will receive £78 million for are focused on crops. The drug development-related program is looking at the molecules made by microbes and plants with a view to discovering antibiotics and other therapeutics.

More drug discovery and development projects should receive money as the government’s chosen ways to funnel the extra funding to researchers get going. Some of the cash will flow through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, an initiative modeled on the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And proposed research funding umbrella group UK Research and Innovation will also hand out cash as the government seeks to correct years of comparatively low investment in R&D.

“Through our modern industrial strategy, we will use all the tools at our disposal to stimulate growth in every part of the country, ensuring that prosperity is more evenly spread,” Greg Clark, business and energy secretary, said in a statement. “Science, research and innovation are at the heart of the industrial strategy which is why we’re providing more than £4.7 billion of additional funding over the next five years, including the £319 million for bioscience research.”

The strategy is central to the government’s attempts to equip the U.K. to prosper once it leaves the European Union, although its impact may be offset by the consequences of Brexit. As it stands, it is unclear whether U.K.-based researchers will be eligible to participate in EU R&D programs after 2020. Those programs provide funding and, arguably more importantly, the chance for researchers in the U.K. to collaborate with their peers on mainland Europe.

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