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Give UK science the overhaul it urgently needs

As the United Kingdom installs its next government, most of the problems it must tackle — from environmental to medical and social issues — are underpinned by science research and policy. Nature spoke to five researchers about their concerns and what actions they think the government should take.

MARIE CLAIRE BRISBOIS :Look for solutions across sectors

Senior lecturer in energy policy at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.

Time is running out to solve crucial issues — climate change, the transition to net-zero emissions, the rise of populism, global security, inequality, pollution and more. Scientists are increasingly busy, worried and overwhelmed. Many — myself included — struggle with exhaustion and feelings of hopelessness while desperately working to find solutions.

For two decades, I’ve worked in many sectors — from teaching primary schoolchildren and informing open-data policies in Canada to helping to provide water and sanitation in impoverished rural communities in Guatemala. I’m now investigating the disproportionate power of big businesses in influencing climate and environmental policy. I understand the diversity of problems that need addressing, their and the difficulty in prioritizing them.

Setting science policies in this context feels a bit like a lottery. Each topic needs more research. Excellent scientists are working hard to find solutions that will reduce or prevent the expected catastrophic consequences — and mitigate the effects that are already happening. Silver bullets, such as nuclear fusion, glimmer only faintly on the horizon.

But there isn’t time for silver bullets in single sectors. Multiple problems must be solved together, urgently.

Thankfully, the technological knowledge exists. Modelling shows, for example, that the United Kingdom can halve its energy demand within 30 years while maintaining or improving its population’s quality of life (see, for example, J. Barrett et al. Nature Energy 7, 726–735; 2022). Science can give us solutions, but science policy must promote their implementation.

I have two recommendations. First, more social-science research is needed to support policies that build public acceptance of change — a difficult but necessary step for demand reduction. For example, such research can explore how to encourage more cycling to lower demand for fossil fuels, and investigate which measures might support people in giving up their cars, such as sharing vehicles or providing adequate public transport.

Second, governments must enable interdisciplinary work that addresses multiple crises. For example, better insulation for homes would help with climate, health, environmental and social-welfare outcomes. But such funding falls across several government departments, and can often have low priority.

Research is urgently needed to define, value and support policies that have benefits across silos. We don’t have time for anything else.

Furaha Asani posing for a photograph

Furaha Asani weaves together technology, arts and culture.Credit: Jon Aitken

FURAHA ASANI: Bring the humanities into science degrees

Research lead on responsible R&D and innovation at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, a creative technologies collaboration between Watershed, the University of the West of England Bristol and the University of Bristol, UK.

The United Kingdom needs to overhaul its whole approach to science, in my view. Stronger bridges between the life sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities need to be built. Funding opportunities also must be extended — not just for institutional research, but also for community work and across all age groups.

In my experience, such broad thinking can help researchers to build trust, work better on issues that are relevant to the public and be more innovative and creative. I’ve seen the benefits of this during my own career.

Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves view robotic equipment through a window during a visit to the Materials Innovation Factory in Liverpool, England

Materials chemist Andy Cooper (right) discusses the role of robotics in his field with UK politicians Keir Starmer (centre) and Rachel Reeves (left).Credit: Leon Neal/Getty

During my PhD on pneumococcal disease, I conducted research on blood samples from people receiving treatments at the HIV and myeloma clinics at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals. I worked closely with participants — on tasks ranging from making introductions and building trust to gaining their informed consent and obtaining the samples.

Concurrently, I invested time in writing non-fiction and improving my political literacy and ability to self-reflect. Somehow, the three areas — research, writing and considering the inherently political nature of life and livelihoods — began to inform one another. Research frustrations became fodder for prose, and a rising awareness of the linked nature of societal injustices made me more aware of my own social responsibility through scientific research.

I realized that interactions that build trust are central to scientific practice, just as much as findings and recommendations are. And I wondered about the narrow scope of most science courses and the absence of social science, humanities or arts modules in them. I think that cross-disciplinary degrees would help to prepare future life scientists to work more seamlessly between fields and conversations — a quality that the world urgently needs.

I now lead a research team that focuses on responsible research, development and innovation at the intersection of the arts, creative technology and culture. I’ve been privileged to explore the role of technology in climate action and how it can help to give people a life-affirming future. Earlier this year, I co-produced the project Alternative Technologies: A Just Transition — work supported by Erinma Ochu, a biologist and storyteller at the University of the West of England Bristol, UK, who is interested in collective consciousness and is funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council. In three workshops, a collective of artists, creative technologists, producers, scientists and activists with different perspectives and expertise explored the role of technologies in climate justice. The participants highlighted, for example, how an ecofeminist lens can help in understanding resource extraction and regeneration, and how the arts and culture sector can help in imagining and devising a sustainable economy.

Something magical yet tangible happens at bridges between disciplines. Many projects showcase this — big and small, inside and outside the academy, intentional and accidental. These can have a much wider audience and impact than siloed ventures do. They must be encouraged through science policy and funding.

JON AGAR: Open up and be ready to listen

Professor of science and technology studies at University College London.

Science can help societies to thrive, allowing the economy to be more productive and the world to become better — but only if leaders and scientists learn from past successes and mistakes.

As a historian of modern science and technology, I gather evidence of how politicians used scientific advice to inform policies and what factors shaped the decisions they took. I am fascinated by how two of the greatest forms of authority, science and political power, intersect.

At the top, the UK prime minister must balance a host of demands, including what was promised in a manifesto, what the country can afford, whose interests might be served or frustrated, what the papers and social media might say — and what the science says. But, as became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is never as simple as ‘following the science’. The chief scientific and medical advisers to the UK government have gone on record to state, for example, that had they been consulted, they would not have supported the Eat Out to Help Out policy intended to bolster the hospitality industry, which they felt was likely to increase transmission of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Incoming ministers inherit well-developed systems for channelling scientific advice and for democratic scrutiny. What lessons stand out from history?

First, expert advice needs to be respected. Mistakes happened in the past when scientific advice was disconnected and sidelined. In the late 1980s, for example, then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher ended the government’s industrial strategy of supporting commercially exploitable, ‘near-market’ science with public funds when she chose to listen to political and not science advisers.

Second, advice to government needs to be broader. Today’s problems involve people, the environment and technology, and solutions require reliable knowledge about all three. There are disciplines that contain a wealth of knowledge about how and why people interact, how technologies shape society and vice versa, and where expertise helps. Certainly, decisions related to COVID-19 would have benefited from more social science and humanities perspectives.

Third, decision-making processes for science-based technologies must be opened up and made accessible, both for contribution and scrutiny. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) has some game-changing niche applications, such as drug discovery or predicting protein structures. But it is ridiculous that generative AI systems have been launched with so little control, evidence-based justification or tests of public interest.

Indeed, in my view, the channels of influence should be turned upside down. If the voters in the United Kingdom want businesses to be more productive and social issues to be tackled, then the government needs to allow problems to be conveyed from the grass roots, in ways that ensure scientists are present and can listen. What’s needed are forums where people speak about their challenges, most importantly at the scale of small- and medium-sized enterprises, charities and community groups. At the largest scale, citizens must envisage what sort of futures they desire and challenge science to progress towards those.

YACINE REZGUI: Put people at the heart of net-zero pathways

Professor of urban informatics at the University of Cardiff, UK.

Climate action in the United Kingdom is at a crossroads. On paper, successive governments have set up an ambitious policy agenda, aiming for a 68% cut in carbon emissions by 2030 relative to 1990 levels, with a target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. This represents a great opportunity for UK businesses, with a global market estimated to exceed £1 trillion (US$1.3 trillion) by 2030. But the lack of a clear and measurable pathway to net zero is hindering progress.

Net zero is not attracting sufficient public interest in the current political climate. Debates on climate action during the election campaign were timid. And elections for the European Parliament in June were a wake-up call — there was a decline in the number of seats secured by green parties, alongside a rise in seats for far-right political parties that are opposed to hard limits on emissions.

How can the latest UK government win the public’s support for the transition to a sustainable economy? In my view, it needs to put people at the centre of net-zero policies and pursue a ‘circular’ life-cycle approach in the management of its resources. The green transition cannot be reduced to a mere carbon-counting exercise. It must be just, prosperous and sustainable, and give equal consideration to environmental, social and economic factors.

Take buildings, which account for around one-fifth of UK greenhouse-gas emissions. Many governments currently assess their green credentials using ‘whole life carbon assessments’, which focus on the tangible dimension of buildings, such as their physical structure. But they don’t take into account occupants’ experiences and feedback, or the financial and practical support needed to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings.

Life-cycle assessments go some of the way and, in my view, should be used in preference. These consider a wider range of implications over the whole life of a building, including its maintenance, renovation, disposal and recycling (see, for example, A. Fnais et al. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 27, 627–654; 2022). They can inform trade-offs to reduce energy demand and prioritize clean-energy consumption.

However, occupants’ feedback is rarely sought. In offices or schools, for example, people who use the building are often considered as passive agents. Giving occupants and users more say in the running of buildings, for example, as indoor and outdoor conditions change, would improve their comfort, well-being and engagement with the green transition.

Circular policies should also be implemented to manage building materials and products effectively. The UK government must recognize that its green transition is dependent on other countries, with key materials — such as cobalt, lithium and rare-earth elements — often sourced from places that have non-ethical working conditions and carbon-intensive processing. The life cycle of materials should be tracked. Managing building components through a ‘material passport’ that documents the provenance of its components and how they can be reused or recycled would confer value to materials beyond their current use. Such material passports exist, but a lack of a common and standardized framework hinders their wide adoption.

In summary, the government needs to promote the wide use of life-cycle assessments and circularity, while adopting a participative approach involving people to ensure that the green transition is just and prosperous.

Maria Nedeva speaking while sitting at a table

Maria Nedeva advocates for reviving international relationships.Credit: Maria Nedeva

MARIA NEDEVA: Reopen UK science to Europe

Maria Nedeva is a professor of science and innovation dynamics and policy at the University of Manchester, UK.

Britain must rekindle its relationships with research networks in Europe and beyond with the utmost priority.

The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union negatively affected UK researchers. The Brexit announcement in 2016 fragmented long-standing international collaborations. Since then, UK-based scientists and scholars have been unable to participate effectively in shaping the research agendas of projects they were once part of, and in 2020 they became largely ineligible for EU funding streams.

It is also much harder for the country to attract and retain highly skilled scientists. A survey done earlier this year by the advocacy organization Universities UK reported a 44% drop in overseas postgraduate-student enrolments in 73 UK universities between January 2023 and January 2024. Among other factors, this has been attributed to changes in minimum-salary requirements for skilled-worker visas.

In the long run, such divisions will erode the quality of science that the United Kingdom can maintain, with adverse effects on education at all levels, on the economy and on the well-being of the population.

All research fields are affected. Areas such as particle physics, astronomy and marine biology, which are organized around large, international research facilities and funded through transnational agreements, are partly shielded from immediate effects. But laboratory-based research is likely to experience the full force of intellectual fragmentation and underfunding more quickly. This will impede research in globally important fields such as nanotechnology and climate science.

Furthermore, funding from overseas often serves to maintain scientific excellence. Take virology and immunology, for example. Expertise in vaccines against Ebola and malaria is not a priority for public funding in the United Kingdom — yet it proved crucial for the prompt design and development of the Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

This January, the United Kingdom re-entered the EU Horizon Europe research-funding programme. Although UK scientists and scholars have access to these European grants in principle, participation is problematic in practice because of visa regulations, the decoupling of UK universities from EU regulatory standards and the fragmentation of scientific alliances.

How can international scientific relationships be revived? On the basis of my research on science and innovation dynamics and policy, I urge the UK government to reach agreements with the EU for full UK participation in research programmes and in exchange schemes (such as Erasmus) for students and researchers. Scientists and scholars must be able to move easily in and out of the country. All visa requirements preventing this must be revisited, and funds must be available to enable the United Kingdom to host high-profile international conferences.

Britain must maintain an excellent and attractive research environment where scientists can create from passion, not discipline.

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