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Topic: research

The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 3 - Science and Policy

📥  education, future, policymaking, research, technology

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the third in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here, and the second part here.

Even in the 'concertina-ed' timeline that astronomers envisage – extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past – this century may be a defining era. The century when humans jump-start the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities that eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth, and far transcend our limitations. Or – to take a darker view – the century where our follies could foreclose this immense future potential.



One lesson I’d draw from these existential threats is this. We fret unduly about small risks – air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, etc. But we’re in denial about some newly emergent threats, which may seem improbable but whose consequences could be globally devastating. Some of these are environmental, others are the potential downsides of novel technologies.

So how can scientists concerned about these issues – or indeed about the social impact of any scientific advances – gain traction with policy-makers?

Some scientists, of course, have a formal advisory role to government. Back in World War II, Winston Churchill valued scientists' advice, but famously kept them "on tap, not on top". It is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But scientific advisers should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties.

President Obama recognised this. He opined that scientists' advice should be heeded "even when it is inconvenient – indeed, especially when it is inconvenient". He appointed John Holdren, from Harvard, as his science adviser, and a ‘dream team’ of others were given top posts, including the Nobel physicist Steve Chu. They had a predictably frustrating time, but John Holdren 'hung in there' for Obama’s full eight years. And of course we’re anxious about what will happen under the new regime!

Their British counterparts, from Solly Zuckerman to Mark Walport, have it slightly easier. The interface with government is smoother, the respect for evidence is stronger, and the rapport between scientists and legislators is certainly better.

For instance, dialogue with parliamentarians led, despite divergent ethical stances, to a generally-admired legal framework on embryos and stem cells – a contrast to what happened in the US. And the HFEA offers another fine precedent.

But we've had failures too: the GM crop debate was left too late – to a time when opinion was already polarised between eco-campaigners on the one side and commercial interests on the other.

There are habitual grumbles that it’s hard for advisors to gain sufficient traction. This isn’t surprising. For politicians, the focus is on the urgent and parochial – and getting re-elected. The issues that attract their attention are those that get headlined in the media, and fill their in-box.

So scientists might have more leverage on politicians indirectly – by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice, for example – rather than via more official and direct channels. They can engage by involvement with NGOs, via blogging and journalism, or through political activity. There’s scope for campaigners on all the issues I’ve mentioned, and indeed many others. For instance, the ‘genetic code’ pioneer John Sulston campaigns for affordable drugs for Africa.

And I think religious leaders have a role. I’m on the council of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which is itself an ecumenical body: its members represent all faiths or none). Max Perutz, for instance, was in a group of four who acted as emissaries of the Pope to promote arms control. And recently, my economist colleague Partha Dasgupta, along with Ram Ramanathan, a climate scientist – two lapsed Hindus! – achieved great leverage by laying the groundwork for the Papal encyclical on climate and environment.

There’s no gainsaying the Catholic Church’s global reach – nor its long-term perspective, nor its concern for the world’s poor. The Encyclical emphasised our responsibility to the developing world, and to future generations. In the lead-up to the Paris conference it had a substantial and timely influence on voters and leaders in Latin America, Africa and East Asia (even perhaps in the US Republican Party).

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments to straddling political divides. The Pugwash Conferences did this in the Cold War – and the governing board of Sesame, a physics project in Jordan, gets Israelis and Iranians around the same table today.

Of course, most of these challenges are global. Coping with potential shortages of food, water, resources – and the transition to low carbon energy – can’t be affected by each nation separately. Nor can threat reduction. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness. Indeed, a key issue is whether nations need to give up more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of the IAEA, WHO, etc., And whether national academies, The World Academy of Sciences, and similar bodies should get more involved.

Universities are among the most international of our institutions, and they have a special role. Academics are privileged to have influence over successive generations of students. Indeed, younger people, who expect to survive most of the century, are more anxious about long-term issues, and more prepared to support ‘effective altruism’ and other causes.

Universities are highly international institutions. We should use their convening power to gather experts together to address the world's problems. That’s why some of us in Cambridge (with an international advisory group) have set up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks, with a focus on the more extreme ‘low probability/high consequence’ threats that might confront us. They surely deserve expert analysis in order to assess which can be dismissed firmly as science fiction, and which should be on the ‘risk register’; to consider how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones; and to warn against technological developments that could run out of control. Even if we reduced these risks by only a tiny percentage, the stakes are so high that we’ll have earned our keep. A wise mantra is that ‘the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable’.

I think scientists should all be prepared to divert some of their efforts towards public policy, and engage with individuals from government, business, and NGOs. There is in the US, incidentally, one distinctive format for such engagement that has no real parallel here. This is the JASON group. It was founded in the 1960s with support from the Pentagon. It involves top-rank academic scientists – in the early days they were mainly physicists, but the group now embraces other fields. They’re bankrolled by the Defense Department, but it’s a matter of principle that they choose their own new members. Some – Dick Garwin and Freeman Dyson, for instance – have been members since the 1960s. The JASONs spend about 6 weeks together in the summer, with other meetings during the year. It’s a serious commitment. The sociology and ‘chemistry’ of such a group hasn’t been fully replicated anywhere else. Perhaps we should try to do so in the UK, not for the military but in civilian areas – the remit of DEFRA, for instance, or the Department of Transport. The challenge is to assemble a group of really top-rank scientists who enjoy cross-disciplinary discourse and tossing ideas around. It won’t ‘take off’ unless they dedicate substantial time to it – and unless the group addresses the kind of problems that play to their strengths.

So to sum up, I think we can truly be techno-optimists. The innovations that will drive economic advance, information technology, biotech and nanotech, can boost the developing as well as the developed world – but there’s a depressing gap between what we could do and what actually happens. Will richer countries recognise that it's in their own interest for the developing world fully to share the benefits of globalisation? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And – above all – can our institutions prioritise projects that are long-term in political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?

We’re all on this crowded world together. Our responsibility – to our children, to the poorest, and to our stewardship of life’s diversity – surely demands that we don’t leave a depleted and hazardous world. I give the last word to the eloquent biologist Peter Medawar:

“The bells that toll for mankind are [...] like the bells of Alpine cattle. They are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a tuneful and melodious sound.”


For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.


The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 2 - Technological Errors and Terrors

📥  research, technology, terrorism

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the second in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here.

I think we should be evangelists for new technologies – without them the world can’t provide food, and sustainable energy, for an expanding and more demanding population. But we need wisely-directed technology. Indeed, many are anxious that it’s advancing so fast that we may not properly cope with it – and that we’ll have a bumpy ride through this century.



Let me expand on these concerns.

Our world increasingly depends on elaborate networks: electric-power grids, air traffic control, international finance, globally-dispersed manufacturing, and so forth. Unless these networks are highly resilient, their benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns – real-world analogues of what happened in 2008 to the financial system. Our cities would be paralysed without electricity. Supermarket shelves would be empty within days if supply chains were disrupted. Air travel could spread a pandemic worldwide within a week, causing the gravest havoc in the shambolic megacities of the developing world. And social media can spread panic and rumour, and economic contagion, literally at the speed of light.

To guard against the downsides of such an interconnected world plainly requires international collaboration. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness.

Advances in microbiology – diagnostics, vaccines and antibiotics – offer prospects of containing pandemics. But the same research has controversial aspects. For instance, in 2012, groups in Wisconsin and in Holland showed that it was surprisingly easy to make the influenza virus both more virulent and transmissible – to some, this was a scary portent of things to come. In 2014 the US federal government decided to cease funding these so-called ‘gain of function’ experiments.

The new CRISPR-cas technique for gene-editing is hugely promising, but there are ethical concerns raised by Chinese experiments on human embryos and by possible unintended consequences of ‘gene drive’ programmes.

Back in the early days of recombinant DNA research, a group of biologists met in Asilomar, California, and agreed guidelines on what experiments should and shouldn’t be done. This seemingly encouraging precedent has triggered several meetings to discuss recent developments in the same spirit. But today, 40 years after Asilomar, the research community is far more broadly international, and more influenced by commercial pressures. I’d worry that whatever regulations are imposed, on prudential or ethical grounds, can’t be enforced worldwide – any more than the drug laws can, or the tax laws. Whatever can be done will be done by someone, somewhere.

And that’s a nightmare. Whereas an atomic bomb can’t be built without large scale special-purpose facilities, biotech involves small-scale dual-use equipment. Indeed, biohacking is burgeoning even as a hobby and competitive game.

We know all too well that technical expertise doesn’t guarantee balanced rationality. The global village will have its village idiots and they’ll have global range. The rising empowerment of tech-savvy groups (or even individuals), by bio as well as cyber technology will pose an intractable challenge to governments and aggravate the tension between freedom, privacy and security.

Concerns about bioerror and bioterror are relatively near-term – within 10 or 15 years. What about 2050 and beyond?

The smartphone, the web and their ancillaries are already crucial to our networked lives. But they would have seemed magic even 20 years ago. So, looking several decades ahead, we must keep our minds open – or at least ajar – to transformative advances that may now seem science fiction.

On the bio front, the great physicist Freeman Dyson conjectures a time when children will be able to design and create new organisms just as routinely as his generation played with chemistry sets. If it becomes possible to ‘play God on a kitchen table’ (as it were), our ecology (and even our species) may not long survive unscathed.

And what about another transformative technology: robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)?

There have been exciting advances in what’s called generalised machine learning: Deep Mind (a small London company now bought up by Google) has just achieved a remarkable feat – its computer has beaten the world champion in a game of Go. Meanwhile, Carnegie-Mellon University has developed a machine that can bluff and calculate as well as the best human players of poker.

Of course it’s 20 years since IBM's 'Deep Blue' beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. But Deep Blue was programmed in detail by expert players. In contrast, the machines that play Go and poker gained expertise by absorbing huge numbers of games and playing against themselves. Their designers don’t themselves know how the machines make seemingly insightful decisions.

The speed of computers allows them to succeed by ‘brute force’ methods. They learn to identify dogs, cats and human faces by ‘crunching’ through millions of images – not the way babies learn. They learn to translate by reading millions of pages of (for example) multilingual European Union documents (they never get bored!).

But advances are patchy. Robots are still clumsier than a child in moving pieces on a real chessboard. They can’t tie your shoelaces or cut old people’s toenails. But sensor technology, speech recognition, information searches and so forth are advancing apace.

They won’t just take over manual work (indeed plumbing and gardening will be among the hardest jobs to automate), but routine legal work (conveyancing and suchlike), medical diagnostics and even surgery.

Can robots cope with emergencies? For instance, if an obstruction suddenly appears on a crowded highway, can Google’s driverless car discriminate whether it’s a paper bag, a dog or a child? The likely answer is that its judgement will never be perfect, but will be better than the average driver – machine errors will occur, but not as often as human error. But when accidents do occur, they will create a legal minefield. Who should be held responsible – the ‘driver’, the owner, or the designer?

The big social and economic question is this: will this ‘second machine age’ be like earlier disruptive technologies – the car, for instance – and create as many jobs as it destroys? Or is it really different this time?

The money ‘earned’ by robots could generate huge wealth for an elite. But to preserve a healthy society will require massive redistribution to ensure that everyone has at least a ‘living wage’. A further challenge will be to create and upgrade public service jobs where the human element is crucial – carers for young and old, custodians, gardeners in public parks and so on – jobs which are now undervalued, but in huge demand.

But let’s look further ahead.

If robots could observe and interpret their environment as adeptly as we do, they would truly be perceived as intelligent beings, to which (or to whom) we can relate. Such machines pervade popular culture —in movies like Her, Transcendence and Ex Machina.

Do we have obligations towards them? We worry if our fellow-humans, and even animals, can’t fulfil their natural potential. Should we feel guilty if our robots are under-employed or bored?

What if a machine developed a mind of its own? Would it stay docile, or ‘go rogue’? If it could infiltrate the internet – and the internet of things – it could manipulate the rest of the world. It may have goals utterly orthogonal to human wishes, or even treat humans as an encumbrance.

Some AI pundits take this seriously, and think the field already needs guidelines – just as biotech does. But others regard these concerns as premature, and worry less about artificial intelligence than about real stupidity.

Be that as it may, it’s likely that society will be transformed by autonomous robots, even though the jury’s out on whether they’ll be ‘idiot savants’ or display superhuman capabilities.

There’s disagreement about the route towards human-level intelligence. Some think we should emulate nature, and reverse-engineer the human brain. Others say that’s as misguided as designing flying machine by copying how birds flap their wings. And philosophers debate whether “consciousness” is special to the wet, organic brains of humans, apes and dogs — so that robots, even if their intellects seem superhuman, will still lack self-awareness or inner life.

Ray Kurzweil, now working at Google, argues that once machines have surpassed human capabilities, they could themselves design and assemble a new generation of even more powerful ones – an intelligence explosion. He thinks that humans could transcend biology by merging with computers. In old-style spiritualist parlance, they would 'go over to the other side'.

Kurzweil is a prominent proponent of this so-called ‘singularity’. But he’s worried that it may not happen in his lifetime. So he wants his body frozen until this nirvana is reached. I was once interviewed by a group of 'cryonic' enthusiasts – based in California – called the 'society for the abolition of involuntary death'. They will freeze your body, so that when immortality’s on offer you can be resurrected or your brain downloaded.

I told them I'd rather end my days in an English churchyard than a Californian refrigerator. They derided me as a 'deathist' – really old fashioned.

I was surprised to find that three academics in this country had gone in for cryonics. Two had paid the full whack; the third has taken the cut-price option of wanting just his head frozen. I was glad they were from Oxford, not from Cambridge – or Bath.

But of course, research on ageing is being seriously prioritised. Will the benefits be incremental? Or is ageing a ‘disease’ that can be cured? Dramatic life-extension would plainly be a real wild card in population projections, with huge social ramifications. But it may happen, along with human enhancement in other forms.

And now a digression into my special interest – space. This is where robots surely have a future.

During this century the whole solar system will be explored by flotillas of miniaturised probes – far more advanced than ESA’s Rosetta, or the NASA probe that transmitted amazing pictures from Pluto, which is 10,000 times further away than the moon. These two instruments were designed and built 15 years ago. Think how much better we could do today. And later this century giant robotic fabricators may build vast lightweight structures floating in space (gossamer-thin radio reflectors or solar energy collectors, for instance) using raw materials mined from the Moon or asteroids.

Robotic advances will erode the practical case for human spaceflight. Nonetheless, I hope people will follow the robots into deep space, though it will be as risk-seeking adventurers rather than for practical goals. The most promising developments are spearheaded by private companies. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, who also makes Tesla electric cars, has launched unmanned payloads and docked with the Space Station – and has recently achieved a soft recovery of the rocket’s first stage, rendering it reusable. Musk hopes soon to offer orbital flights to paying customers.

Wealthy adventurers are already signing up for a week-long trip round the far side of the Moon – voyaging further from Earth than anyone has been before (but avoiding the greater challenge of a Moon landing and blast-off). I’m told they’ve sold a ticket for the second flight – but not for the first.

We should surely acclaim these private enterprise efforts in space; they can tolerate higher risks than a western government could impose on publicly-funded bodies, and thereby cut costs compared to NASA or the ESA. But these they should be promoted as adventures or extreme sports – the phrase ‘space tourism’ should be avoided. It lulls people into unrealistic confidence.

By 2100 courageous pioneers in the mould of (say) the British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes – or Felix Baumgartner, who broke the sound barrier in freefall from a high-altitude balloon – may have established ‘bases’ independent from the Earth, on Mars, or maybe on asteroids. Musk himself (aged 45) says he wants to die on Mars – but not on impact.

But don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. There’s no ‘Planet B’.

Indeed, Space is an inherently hostile environment for humans. For that reason, even though we may wish to regulate genetic and cyborg technology on Earth, we should surely wish the space pioneers good luck in using all such techniques to adapt to alien conditions. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species: the beginning of the post-human era. And it would also ensure that advanced life would survive, even if the worst conceivable catastrophe befell our planet.

As an astronomer I’m sometimes asked: ‘does contemplation of huge expanses of space and time affect your everyday life?’ Well, having spent much of my life among astronomers, I have to tell you that they’re not especially serene, and fret as much as anyone about what happens next week or tomorrow. But they do bring one special perspective – an awareness of the far future. Let me explain.

The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (outside ‘fundamentalist’ circles, at any rate). But most people still tend to regard humans as the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That hardly seems credible to an astronomer. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out, and the expanding universe will continue – perhaps forever. To quote Woody Allen, eternity is very long, especially towards the end. So we may not even be at the half-way stage of evolution.

It may take just decades to develop human-level AI – or it may take centuries. Be that as it may, it’s but an instant compared to the cosmic future stretching ahead.

There must be chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of ‘wet’ organic brains. Maybe we’re close to these already. But fewer limits constrain electronic computers (still less, perhaps, quantum computers); for these, the potential for further development could be as dramatic as the evolution from pre-Cambrian organisms to humans. So, by any definition of ‘thinking’, the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will be utterly swamped by the future cogitations of AI.

Moreover, the Earth’s environment may suit us ‘organics’ – but interplanetary and interstellar space may be the preferred arena where robotic fabricators will have the grandest scope for construction, and where non-biological ‘brains’ may develop greater powers than humans can even imagine.

I’ve no time to speculate further beyond the flakey fringe – perhaps a good thing! So let me conclude by focusing back more closely on the here and now.

For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.


Comparing Basic Income Experiments: Lessons and Challenges

📥  Economy, living wage, research, universal basic income

Dr Jurgen De Wispelaere is a Policy Fellow at the IPR, as well as Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Tampere. As part of the latter role, he plays a part in the Kela-led research team preparing the upcoming national basic income experiment in Finland.

Experimenting with basic income: a unique situation

In Europe we are faced with a unique situation: in 2015/2016 not one but two countries started down the road of piloting a basic income experiment. There are important similarities between the experiments planned in Finland and the Netherlands. All going well, both countries hope to get started in early 2017 and run the experiment for two years - and in both cases, for a variety of reasons, the plan is to pilot an experiment limited to social assistance recipients. In short, Finland and the Netherlands will be simultaneously conducting an experiment on a broadly similar target population.



There are of course also important differences. First and foremost, the experimental design in both countries is very different. For example, Finland will pilot a national randomised controlled trial with a single basic income model, while in the Netherlands different municipalities will experiment with a variety of models. There are also very interesting differences in terms of the political process associated with the basic income experiments: where Finland’s experiment was initiated by the Finnish government and is therefore highly centralised, the Dutch experiments were pushed onto the policy agenda by local NGOs or municipal decision-makers against considerable resistance from the central government. Finally, Finland and the Netherlands are very different types of welfare states, and we can expect variation in welfare institutions and processes to affect both the political decision-making process and the actual design of the proposed experiments.

Why compare?

This combination of two experiments simultaneously taking place in countries that differ in important respects is a unique situation that opens up the possibility of engaging in serious comparative research. Why compare? There are three reasons why both projects should engage in close collaboration and why we should adopt a comparative approach to studying what happens in Finland and the Netherlands.

The first reason is practical. Piloting a basic income scheme is a complex endeavour and those involved in designing and implementing the experiment run into a lot of problems along the way. There is much to learn from experiments carried out in the past in the US and Canada as well as, more recently, Namibia and India. But the lessons to be learned from those experiments are limited by the fact that they took place several decades ago — the world has moved on quite a bit since the 1970s — or that they operated in an environment that is very different from that of an advanced welfare state inside the EU. For this reason it makes sense that the experiments about to take off in Finland and the Netherlands may be able to help each other more than any of those that took place before. Exchanging information about hurdles encountered, as well as proposed solutions, may offer key guidance that could benefit both experiments.

A second reason for thinking comparatively relates to building up cumulative knowledge about basic income design, implementation and effects. Despite a massive increase in media and policy attention, we actually don’t know that much about basic income. Many arguments doing the rounds run the gamut from “reasonable expectation” (when grounded in good theory or analogous reasoning from other policy areas) to wild speculation (in other cases). There is a simple reason for that: basic income has not been implemented in a way that allows for robust insights.

The recent interest in pilots and experiments offers a great opportunity to (partly) rectify this problem, provided we adopt an approach that allows for systematically comparing design, implementation and results, as well as the underlying policy process. There is little to be gained from experiments that make it impossible to compare results in any meaningful way. Streamlining experimental design as much as possible to facilitate valid comparisons during and after the pilot — e.g., by standardising baseline surveys, indicators and measurement instruments where possible — is of immense importance in terms of furthering our global knowledge about basic income policy. Although experiments will always have important variation built into them, given the specific context in which they operate, when carefully coordinated they will tell us how to interpret design differences and their effects on the outcomes. And this, in turn, helps us understand which outcomes are unique to a specific experimental setting, and which can be generalised across and reflect common results of instituting a basic income.

A third important reason pertains to the politics of basic income pilot experiments. The dramatic increase in media and policy attention in the span of a mere three years has taken everyone — advocates and critics alike — by surprise. We know next to nothing about the factors that explain why basic income has suddenly become politique du jour amongst the political elites (Sure, we all have out little pet theories, but without systematic analysis and evidence, that is exactly all they are!). Equally, if not more importantly, we are only beginning to understand the political drivers of basic income policy development more generally. Against this uncertain background, the experiments play a crucial role in uncovering in a systematic manner the policy and political processes that have brought us to where we are now. Understanding these underlying processes, of course, is also critically important in thinking about where to go next, and how to make use of basic income experiments and their results in due course to move policy development along.

Having experiments taking place in two countries as diverse as Finland and the Netherlands offers a unique opportunity to study the political forces at play — an opportunity not to be wasted. Two intriguing aspects of these jurisdictions merit particularly careful examination. First, comparing the top-down approach adopted in Finland with the bottom-up approach that characterises the Dutch context allows us to examine closely the complicated political process by which an idea moves onto the policy agenda and — hopefully — soon enters the implementation phase. Real world policy development of the basic income proposal will have to make sense of the multi-level nature of its design and implementation. Second, there are important lessons to be learned in terms of framing the basic income debate: where Finland has embraced the experiment as a natural continuation of several decades of intense and complicated debate about basic income, in the Netherlands the experiments proceed while strategically avoiding any connotation with the basic income idea. Understanding the framing process will help political strategy in overcoming public and political resistance of the basic income idea.

Challenges to adopting a comparative approach

There are challenges to adopting a comparative approach to basic income experimentation. Some of the challenges are related to each experiment as an individual — e.g., maintaining the political momentum to carry out the experiment in a manner that produces reliable results — while others pertain to the demands of coordination between experimental teams. Examples of the latter include the need to adapt the research design and experimental setting to maximise comparability, the sharing of information and regular communication across jurisdictions — keeping in mind that each project is highly politicised! — and the building of a cross-country collaborative research network dedicated to supporting and evaluating ongoing and future basic income experiments. There is much work to be done, but the opportunity is there for grabbing.


This piece draws on information from a workshop entitled “Experimenting with Basic Income: Finland and Netherlands”, which was hosted by Kela with the aim of exchanging views between researchers involved in the planning of the Finnish basic income experiment and researchers from the Netherlands currently preparing the experiments planned for early 2017 in Utrecht, Wageningen, Tilburg and Groningen.

The presentations given at the workshop were recorded and can be viewed here. This piece has also been published on the Kela website.


Citizen's Income: the long history of an inevitable idea

📥  Economy, Finland, future, living wage, policymaking, political parties, research, Switzerland, universal basic income, Welfare

Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen's Income Trust and a prolific author on the subject of Citizen's Income.

On Tuesday 11 October the Institute for Policy Research hosted a seminar on the desirability and feasibility of a Citizen’s or Basic Income: an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. An account of the seminar is available on the IPR’s website. I shall not here repeat what was said at that seminar: instead, I shall begin with a different seminar.



Following the publication of its report on Citizen’s Income, the Royal Society of Arts hosted a seminar on the history and prospects of the Citizen’s Income debate. In his presentation Karl Widerquist, Co-chair of BIEN, the Citizen’s Income international umbrella group, recounted the history of the idea from the 18th Century onwards, and made suggestions as to the different ways in which the debate might now develop.

The subsequent discussion recognised that the more intense debate of the past two or three years has a variety of causes: think tank engagement with the issue, represented by the RSA’s and Compass’s reports, and interest at the Adam Smith Institute; successful pilot projects in Namibia and India; planned pilot projects in Finland and Holland; a referendum in Switzerland; political party interest in the UK (with the Green Party and the Scottish National Party supporting the idea, and Labour interested) and in other countries too; new trade union interest; and perhaps even the Citizen’s Income Trust’s 30 years of research and publications.

The current debate already has its own history, constituted by three phases: discussion of whether giving everyone a Citizen’s Income would be desirable, interest in whether it would be feasible, and discussion of which would be the best way to implement the policy. There are no firm boundaries between these three phases (if a Citizen’s Income could not be implemented, for example, then it would not be feasible – and if it wasn’t felt to be desirable then it wouldn’t be feasible either), and each new phase has been in addition to a previous phase or phases, rather than being a replacement – but the progression is significant because it is evidence for the increasingly serious nature of the current debate. The think tank reports listed above belong to the ‘feasibility’ phase, as does my own recent Institute for Social and Economic Research Euromod working paper and recent book. A significant contribution to the new focus on implementation will be an Institute for Chartered Accountants consultation on the subject in November.

Where will the debate go now?

Luke Martinelli’s recent Institute for Policy Research blog discusses the diversity of the current debate in terms of, firstly, the diverse political ideologies of some of the players, and secondly the diversity of Citizen’s Income schemes discussed. A Citizen’s or Basic Income is always the same thing. It is always an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. But there are of course a wide diversity of different schemes, with each scheme specifying the levels of Citizen’s Income for different age groups, and the changes that will be made to the existing tax and benefits systems when the Citizen’s Income is implemented. Compass called a scheme that retains means-tested benefits a ‘modified’ scheme. It is not. The Citizen’s Income is a genuine Citizen’s Income, so the scheme is a genuine Citizen’s Income scheme.

There is a history to this diversity. As with the three phases of the current debate, so the longer-term debate has evolved by addition rather than by replacement. Thomas Paine’s suggestion, that those who no longer have access to expropriated commons should be paid compensation, has been a continuing theme, represented today by Guy Standing’s campaigning scholarship. Today’s most high-profile representative of the libertarian argument for a Citizen’s Income is Philippe Van Parijs, and Charles Murray represents well the extreme version of this tendency, which would like to scrap all other welfare provision on the implementation of a Citizen’s Income. But this is to suggest – as Martinelli’s blog post does – that arguments for Citizen’s Income, and accompanying preferred Citizen’s Income schemes, can be located in clear ideological categories. I suspect that this is less and less the case. There are no longer clear categories, and there are no reliable spectra on which positions can be located. Our age is increasingly one of radical diversity. My first book on Citizen’s Income, Money for Everyone, discussed political feasibility in terms of identifiable political ideologies. The following book, 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income, simply offers 101 different reasons, recognising that for each individual a particular bundle of reasons might be significant. A handful of the reasons offered are framed in terms of political ideologies, because for many people those are still salient – but most of the reasons are simply listed in such broad categories as ‘economy’, ‘society’, ‘administration’, etc. My most recent book, Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, recognises that we are a community of communities, and that particular communities might have their own distinctive reasons for supporting or rejecting Citizen’s Income. As the Citizen’s Income debate becomes increasingly mainstream, we shall find the same tendency that we find with other current issues: that they will become political footballs – that is, they will be pushed around by political considerations, rather than in relation to their own characteristics. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has for a long time recognised that we shall one day need a Citizen’s Income, and that the idea needs to be carefully studied by government. He spoke at the Citizen’s Income Trust’s conference in 2014, invited the Trust to organise one of his People’s Parliament events, and since becoming Shadow Chancellor has reiterated his interest. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, has also been clear about his support. During the recent Labour Party leadership campaign, Corbyn’s opponent Owen Smith stated his view that Citizen’s Income wasn’t credible. Whether he had read any of the research I don’t know – but it certainly appeared that the motive for his objection was that his opponent had supported it. It is regrettable when positions are taken for reasons proceeding from a personal political career, or for factional advantage, rather than on the basis of evidenced and reasoned argument – but incidents such as this are useful because they signal the fact that an idea is understood, and that it is understood to be significant. What is then required is a sustained emphasis on the idea’s feasibility.

The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income understands feasibility as multifaceted, and recognises that specifically political feasibility is just one aspect of feasibility. In order to be implemented, a Citizen’s Income scheme would need to pass two kinds of financial feasibility test, with regard to both the feasibility of paying for it and the need to avoid imposing losses on low-income households at the point of implementation; it would need to pass psychological, behavioural, and administrative feasibility tests; and it would need to be able to negotiate the complex policy process from idea to implementation. The book concludes that there are Citizen’s Income schemes that could achieve all of that. A conclusion that might have been more explicit is that conformity of the scheme to a political ideology or ideologies might be fairly unimportant. A conclusion that is drawn matches one that Martinelli draws: that deeply embedded convictions, relating to reciprocity, deservedness, and so on, will need to be recognised at the implementation stage, because only those implementation methods that could achieve public approval can be regarded as feasible. The popularity of both the NHS and Child Benefit suggest that unconditional benefits fit the British psyche just as much as ideas of reciprocity and deservedness do; so as long as age groups generally felt to be ‘deserving’ are the first to receive Citizen’s Incomes, psychological feasibility should not be too difficult to achieve. Governments can move ahead of public opinion if they are moving in the same direction – recent examples are the ban on smoking in workplaces and public places, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage – and legislation can sometimes shape public opinion (as equalities legislation has done). This suggests that any government that saw good reason for implementing a Citizen’s Income scheme would be able to do so, as long as it started with age groups generally believed to be deserving – that is, children, retired people, the pre-retired, and the 16+ age group.

Martinelli suggests that the Citizen’s Income debate will exhibit a variety of different Citizen’s Income schemes, with each kind relating to a different set of political convictions. I’m not so sure. It is a reasonable assumption that for the foreseeable future any initial Citizen’s Income scheme in a developed country will need to be revenue neutral, and possibly strictly revenue neutral (in the sense that only tax allowances related to earnings would be reduced to help to pay for the Citizen’s Income). Microsimulation research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research has shown that a revenue-neutral Citizen’s Income scheme can only avoid imposing unacceptable losses on low-income households if current means-tested benefits are left in place and are recalculated to take account of each household’s Citizen’s Income and changes in net earnings. Recently updated figures show that a working-age adult Citizen’s Income of £60 per week could be paid for on this basis. This is not large, but neither is it insignificant. Compass’s recent report takes a similar approach. The RSA report does not – but neither has it tested its proposed scheme for low-income household losses at the point of implementation. We look forward to the results of current IPR microsimulation research. We are now more aware than before that although it is possible to construct a wide variety of Citizen’s Income schemes in theory, in practice only a narrow range of that diversity could ever be financially feasible in both senses of that term. If the debate about Citizen’s Income remains mainstream, and if it becomes increasingly so, then any infeasible scheme will be put under considerable pressure (as the Green Party’s proposed scheme was before the 2015 General Election) – and the result will be convergence on a narrow range of revenue-neutral schemes that would not impose losses on low-income households at the point of implementation.

The increasingly flexible and diverse nature of the employment market, family structures, and society and the economy generally, and the way in which the proceeds of production will continue to accrue to capital rather than to labour, mean that sooner or later we shall need a Citizen’s Income – and that we shall need to find some means of paying for it. But that could still be a very long process. Maybe by this time next year everybody will have lost interest, and the idea will have to await another upsurge in interest in a generation’s time; or maybe there will be both developing and developed countries taking the first steps towards implementation. More likely, we shall experience a situation somewhere between those two. Whatever the debate is like next year, it will have been important for high-quality research to have facilitated it. For this reason it is a pleasure to see the Institute for Policy Research contributing to the research that we shall need, and to the widespread debate that is now required.

This blog post develops on themes discussed by Dr Torry in a recent IPR Seminar. You can view the seminar and slides in full on our online lectures page, or listen to the podcast on our Soundcloud playlist.

Drug and alcohol-related deaths: What of those left behind?

📥  Death and bereavement, drug policy, research

Dr Christine Valentine is Research Associate in the University of Bath's Centre for Death and Society (CDAS), part of the Department of Social and Policy Sciences.

According to popular wisdom death is the great leveller, affirming our common humanity whatever our status in life. But our recent study of people bereaved by a drug or alcohol-related death found it can also marginalise and stigmatise both those who have died and those left behind.



Our 2012-15 ESRC funded study [1] aimed to better understand and improve policy and practice for the families and individuals affected by a substance-related death. Interviews with 106 people bereaved by substance use found a failure of services to respond to the diversity of people’s experiences with particularly negative consequences for the bereaved [2]. To address this, the study engaged 40 practitioners via six focus groups to explore how better to support these bereaved people. A working group of 12 practitioners then developed best practice guidelines.

Stigma entails stereotyping and ‘othering’, recognising neither the shared humanity nor unique individuality of those belonging to certain groups. For example, press reporting of substance-related deaths is more likely to distance the reader than invite sympathy for grieving family members [3]. In defining the deceased only by their substance use, such reporting can be particularly distressing for bereaved family members in failing to do justice to the person they knew and loved. One bereaved father interviewed for our study recalled: "I just read 'Unemployed man dies of drug overdose' and read down through and it was [my son] and I don’t think the main point about him was that he was unemployed. There was more to [him] than an unemployed man."

Though increased cultural pluralism has brought greater awareness and appreciation of different ways of dealing with death, when it comes to deaths from substance use negative connotations of deviance predominate. In addition to the stigma of substance use and its association with reckless life-styles, the resulting deaths are considered self-inflicted and preventable. Reinforced by press reporting, those left behind remain particularly vulnerable to negative responses from the wider society, including pathologising or blaming the families for failing to prevent the death or even being complicit in some way. As one bereaved mother reported, “It would seem that they [mental health services] immediately went down the route of what’s going on in the family? …this is a family that aren’t functioning well together.” Such responses, while upsetting for bereaved families, are also limiting for the way we understand and manage death and loss in our society more generally.

That initiatives focus on preventing such deaths is understandable; in the UK nearly 12,000 such deaths were recorded in 2013, those relating to drugs rather than alcohol being the highest on record [4]; [5]; [6][i]. While there are no firm estimates of how many people have been affected by substance-related deaths, these mortality rates suggest a sizeable number. Yet they remain a hidden, neglected and ‘at-risk’ population in terms of the devastating effects of this kind of bereavement on health and well-being [7]. Important though treatment and prevention policies are, they are not always successful. As a bereaved father whose son died as a result of alcohol addiction said: "There are limits to what you can do… It may be that with all your best efforts the problem will still be there and … get worse and in the end it may result in death" ([8]). Do we then abandon those left behind after the death, regarding them as part of the problem rather than listening to and learning from their experiences?

To date little academic attention has been given to substance use bereavement. In contrast, a considerable body of work has highlighted the pressures experienced by families living with a member’s substance use [9], some of which has made a significant contribution to the work of drug and alcohol treatment services [10]; [11]. These pressures include the threat to family relationships, not knowing how to respond to the person’s substance use and grief for having lost that person to their substance use. From what is already known of families living with substance use it is clear they will already be depleted of resources when faced with the person’s death. As one bereaved mother reflected, "Addicted families have been bereaved for a very long time, they lost that person a long time ago...and so they have been grieving for a very long time."

Despite some practitioners’ growing awareness of what bereaved families may be coping with, austerity policies have left the organisations concerned under-resourced. While there have been some practice initiatives in both substance use and bereavement fields, such as annual memorial events, bereavement support groups and training programmes[ii], there is little in the way of evidence-based guidance for services dealing with substance-related deaths, substance use or bereavement support.

Evidence from the UK suggests that bereaved people as a whole are poorly served, often facing gaps and inconsistencies in service delivery [12]. For those bereaved through substance use, our research identified additional problems with both the system for processing such deaths and how the bereaved are treated. With regard to the system, responsibilities for dealing with these deaths and with those people left behind are split across disparate services, which can be divided into two broad categories:

1. Services focusing on the deceased, carrying out statutory procedures, such as establishing the cause of death and ensuring proper disposal of the body. This may involve paramedics, GPs, the police and the coroner (in England) or procurator fiscal (in Scotland), and pathologists. Newspaper reporters are responsible for reporting unexplained deaths, while undertakers look after the body and arrange its disposal.

2. Services for those left behind, including clergy or other religious officials providing funeral care, bereavement counsellors and support groups and drug and alcohol services where the bereaved person is in treatment for their own substance use. However, some interviewees reported that the contact they had with drug and alcohol treatment agencies when the person was alive was withdrawn and, with few bereavement services having knowledge of substance use issues, there was nowhere to turn.

Many of our interviewees encountered insensitive, judgmental and abrupt responses from a range of professionals and practitioners. Poor responses from those dealing with the death at or in the immediate aftermath (category 1) could be particularly undermining, the bereaved person being at their most vulnerable, in some cases having already experienced stigma before the death. To experience further stigma from services when bereaved is likely to be particularly distressing [13]; [14]. As one married couple conveyed, "It’s just a horrible stigma … you are labelled, especially by the police … it’s as if when he died, 'Oh another one bites the dust' … it was just horrible."

What was more, poor responses from professionals made it all the more difficult for interviewees to negotiate an unfamiliar, unwieldy, confusing and time-consuming process involving a range of separate organisations. This was particularly, though not solely, the case where the death was sudden and unexpected and drugs (rather than alcohol alone) were implicated. These unexplained deaths are more likely to involve official investigation by the police and coroner in England and the Procurator Fiscal Depute in Scotland. In such cases, the family home may be treated as a crime scene, the deceased’s body and possessions taken into custody and the funeral delayed until after the inquest. Such delays can create considerable uncertainty for the bereaved, who may feel under suspicion as well as deprived of their family member’s remains.

In being questioned about the kinds of support they needed, interviewees reported appreciating practitioners who showed compassion for their situation; adopted respectful and inclusive language; treated them as individuals and avoided making assumptions; and helped them navigate the ‘system’, in some cases working closely with other services to achieve a joined-up response. Yet, more often they reported treatment that was unkind, unhelpful, dismissive and demoralising. In response, practitioner focus groups highlighted the challenges of multi-agency working and how poor responses were, in part, linked to discrete services, each having their own particular working culture and identity. Communication between practitioners from different services was therefore often poor or lacking. Also many services remain uninformed about substance use bereavement, even those specialising in bereavement support.

There was general agreement that services should and could do more to better support those bereaved by substance use, some practitioners voicing their awareness of the difficulties these bereaved people faced. As a coroner’s officer said: "I come from a very narrow focus in terms of supporting people when they attend the inquest process, but…when I talk to people the one thing that they say is that they have absolutely no idea about what to expect, what’s going to happen, what the process will be and that’s on top of trying to grieve and...the stigma that surrounds people who have died through these circumstances". To tackle stigma and foster closer liaison between frontline services and addiction agencies it was felt that greater understanding of both the bereaved person’s predicament as well as each other’s roles was needed .

In response to our study’s findings, an inter-professional working group of twelve members developed practice guidelines [15]. Group members included a paramedic, two members of Police Scotland, a Senior Coroner’s Officer, a GP, a Funeral Director, a University Chaplain, a Senior Alcohol Policy and Research Officer, a Counsellor and Trainer in counselling and social care (who chaired the group), and three people working in the substance use field who were also bereaved by substance use. Reflecting a range of expertise and experience, the guidelines are being widely disseminated via practitioner networks across relevant services – and being enthusiastically received.

Written by practitioners for practitioners, the guidelines centralise the experiences of the bereaved people in question. They invite the reader to identify with the bereaved service user, while highlighting both the specific challenges these bereaved people face as well as the particularity of each service user’s experience. The guidelines capture both universal and diverse aspects of dying, death and bereavement, crucial for enhancing service provision. How far this will be achieved remains to be seen, but the guidelines testify to the willingness of those concerned to engage with this challenging and complex area despite its under-representation within the broader policy agenda.


[i] Actual numbers of both drug and alcohol-related deaths are likely to be far higher than official statistics suggest because some deaths are not recorded or categorised as being drug or alcohol-related and definitions of such deaths tend to vary (Corkery, J. (2008) UK drug-related mortality – issues of definition and classification. Drugs and Alcohol Today, 8(2), 17-25)
[ii] See e.g. Adfam; BTA (Bereaved Through Addiction); Cruse Bereavement Care; DrugFAM; FASS (Family Addiction Support Service); SFAD (Scottish Families Affected by Addiction).


[1] http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/research/understanding-those-bereaved-through-substance-misuse/

[2] Valentine C, Bauld L, Walter T. 2016a. Bereavement following substance misuse: a disenfranchised grief. Omega: Journal of Death Studies. 72:283–301. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/A_disenfranchised_Grief.pdf

[3] Guy, P. (2004) Bereavement Through Drug Use: Messages From Research. Practice 16(1): 43-54.

[4] ONS (2016) Alcohol-related Deaths in the United Kingdom: Registered in 2014. London: ONS; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.ons.gov.uk

[5] ONS (2015) Deaths Related to Drug Poisoning in England and Wales: 2014 Registrations. London: ONS; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.ons.gov.uk

[6] National Records of Scotland. 2014. Drug-Related Deaths in Scotland in 2013; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.nrscotland.gov.uk

[7] Templeton, L., Ford, A., McKell, j., Valentine, c., Walter, T., Velleman, R., Bauld, l., Hay, G. and Hollywood, J. (2016) Addiction Research and Theory, 24 (5): 341-354. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/16066359.2016.1153632

[8] Valentine C, Templeton L, Velleman R. 2016b. “There are limits on what you can do”: biographical reconstruction by those bereaved by alcohol-related deaths. In: Thurnell-Read T, editor. Drinking dilemmas: space, culture and identity. London: Routledge. p. 187–204. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereavement_project_15/12_There_Are_Limits_on_What_You_Can_Do_Biographical_reconstruction_by_those_bereaved_by_alcohol-related_deaths.pdf

[9]Arcidiacono, C., Velleman, R., Procentese, F. Albanesi, C. and Sommantico, M. (2009). Impact and Coping in Italian families of drug and alcohol users. Qualitative Research in Psychology 6(4): 260-280.

[10] Copello A, Templeton L, Orford J, Velleman R. (2010). The 5-step method: principles and practice. Drugs Education Prevention and Policy. 17:86–99.

[11] Orford, J., Velleman, R., Guillermina, N., Templeton, L. and Copello, A. (2012) Addiction in the family is a major but neglected contributor to the global burden of adult ill-health. Social Science and Medicine 78:70-77

[12] NCPC, (2014) Life After Death: Six steps to improve support in bereavement. London: The National Council for Palliative Care.

[13] Walter T, Ford A, Templeton L, Valentine C, Velleman R. 2015. Compassion or Stigma? How adults bereaved by alcohol or drugs experience services. Health and Social Care in the Community. Doi: 10.1111/hsc.12273

[14] Valentine, C. and Bauld, L., (2016) Marginalised Deaths and Policy, in Foster, L. and Woodthorpe, K. (Eds) (2016) Death and Social Policy in Challenging Times. New York, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereavement_project_15/Marginalised_Death_and_Policy.pdf

[15] Cartwright, P. (2015) Bereaved through substance use. Guidelines for those whose work brings them into contact with adults bereaved after a drug or alcohol-related death. University of Bath. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereaved-through-substance-use.pdf


No Utopian solution for future funding, but partnership offers a fighting chance

📥  funding, future, research

Professor Chick Wilson, Department of Chemistry

There is no point in hiding from the truth; an already difficult and complex situation for research funding became significantly more complicated following the Brexit vote in June. We must not lose track of the fact that the pre-Brexit funding landscape had been complicated not only by successive settlements which, while protecting science from the worst of the fiscal reductions evident elsewhere in Government, introduced new strings to much of the effective flat cash settlements with which the research community have made only tentative steps in being able to appreciate to date. It is to the credit of the previous Chancellor that, relatively speaking, he did protect research from cuts that would have severely hampered the ability of the UK to continue punching above its weight in research delivery and impact. However, this was achieved through a series of compromises that became increasingly severe as time proceeded through his Chancellorship. Having seen major research funding within the ring-fence earmarked for major investments that made for eye-catching announcements, the culmination of what some may regard as a dilution of core research funding was the establishment of the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), which will ramp up to account for a total spend of £1.5 billion by 2021. This protects research funding but only by coupling it strongly with resource that can be accounted towards the UK commitment to 0.7% ear-marking of government spend for international development efforts, through DfID. The latter government department plays arguably an unexpected central role in the UK research environment; embracing and understanding that partnership will be both key and a significant challenge for the research community, particularly those not historically tuned into the international development agenda.


The history of the GCRF is interesting in itself. Rumours of a “Grand Challenge Fund” were around in 2015 both prior to and immediately following the General Election in that year. Rumoured to be a “top-slicing” of funding from the budgets of each of the seven research councils (and this idea is likely still to form part of the future landscape), there was significant engagement between the research councils and their communities, with each identifying key Challenges that could be addressed by such a fund, of order £100M per annum. Taking advantage of this opportunity would have been a challenge in itself, requiring new interdisciplinary approaches to research and targeting if existing efforts towards the unified priority areas. The GCRF that emerged as part of the CSR2015 statement was, to most of the community, surprising in the extent to which it is targeted at delivering research that focuses on producing solutions that are relevant in development contexts.  It is new, it is different, it challenges our thinking as researchers but also, crucially, challenges our funders in the Research Councils. It is obvious from the response to the modest funding available through GCRF in 2016/17 that the Councils have dramatically different views on how and where this fund could best be targeted; these differences in views will become crucial when the non-earmarked finds kick in from 2017/18 onwards. Here is where partnership with our funders will become increasingly crucial. Engaging with RCUK colleagues will enable the research community to influence approaches to the GCRF, not only to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of UK research as well as its targeted beneficiaries in the developing world. Moreover, and more of this below, such partnership can also help reinforce the case made for the importance, relevance, adaptability and impact of the UK research base, to ensure that the full extent of the GCRF can still be delivered in the post-Brexit landscape.

Of course the new elephant in this room, as is true of other funding streams for UK research, is the inevitable alteration of the landscape for EU funding into the UK. For researchers this primarily presents as the funding distributed by the European Research Council, through a wide range of often complex streams held within the Horizon 2020 framework. The UK is a substantial contributor to the ERC budget, but as is well rehearsed, is also a major beneficiary from these research funds, with funding wins for UK researchers consistently outstripping the contribution made. A situation of such “juste retour plus” is to be, and has been, celebrated and is a core element of the UK research funding landscape. The announcement by the new Chancellor on 13 August that EU funds awarded to UK researchers prior to Brexit will be underwritten by the Treasury is welcome, positive and may well have broader implications for the place of research in the new administration’s thinking.  However, this guarantee is of course limited to the pre-Brexit period, and it goes without saying that the post-Brexit destination of this funding is critical to sustaining our research; once the imperative to respect these prior commitments has been removed, it will be important not to rely on some of the more optimistic, naïve hopes and expectations about this funding. Many cling to the commitments to repatriate EU contributions “in full” to UK needs post-Brexit, of whatever true value they represent, but of the priorities for this advanced in securing the plurality for Leave in the Referendum, just think where research funding might sit with respect to the NHS, regional development, agriculture and others. Some believe that we can lobby the Government to fill the European funding gap in its entirety, and even to make the case to deliver in the future not only the UK contribution but the juste retour-plus bonus also. We can say it, but how will we make such a possibility realistic or even possible? As we move to make the case for this next stage of the argument, we must be realistic and robust in our engagement and influencing of policy, setting out the case without falling into the trap of seeking funding to be maintained “because it is what we have now” and instead make the case within the frame of the critical importance of the research base for the UK economically and societally. We must do this in partnership with those fighting the same battle, including our RCUK partners; this is also relevant to the arguably more fundamental question of what our broader relationship with EU research funding will be in future.

Assuming the new post-Brexit administration maintains continuity of approach to research funding, we in the research community have clear challenges, some of which have been noted above but also including the establishment of the unified funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our response must be positive but not Utopian. We must work with both existing and evolving partners in fighting for the next settlement for UK research, in particular as part of Brexit negotiations and in renewing our lobbying and influencing prior to the autumn financial statement. A recent UUK meeting was addressed by one of these partners, Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee.  As with our RCUK partners and the GCRF, it is clear that the S&T Select Committee needs the mature engagement of research community in undertaking its important work in protecting and promoting UK research and the importance of its adequate funding. Another partnership with which we must work, offering well-reasoned but again realistic and non-naïve inputs to its consultations and evidence sessions. Being confronted with a research community that refuses to accept reality and wishes to envisage solutions that pretend that major perturbations have not occurred will do none of us any good. We will not be able to exert our influence unless we are robust, realistic and creative in our views, and produce viable alternatives that can form part of a real policy delate rather than presenting unachievable pipe-dreams.

In this, the research community must show itself to be increasingly sophisticated in engaging with those with whom we share common cause. Likewise with RCUK as it moves towards the establishment of UKRI. Long gone are the days when we could consider our relationships with the Research Councils and their committed staff as “them and us”; this relationship has changed out of all recognition in the last decade or more, and we must utilise these increasingly important partnerships to secure our funding future.