Our recent paper in Nature (Fuchsberger et al, published 11 July 2016) is a testament to the power of collaborative research. The samples that were examined came from individuals from 16 countries, with ancestral origins in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The author list includes over 300 scientists working in 22 countries. Funding to enable the research came from over 60 different sources – governments, charities, institutions – located in 12 countries (plus the EU).
Such collaboration is increasingly the norm in science these days.
A decade or two ago, “big science” on this scale was typical in physics and astronomy, but – outside of the Human Genome Project and a few high-profile endeavors – not in the life sciences. One of the biggest changes in science in my area (broadly genomics and translational medicine) over the past 15 years has been the transformation from research conducted at the level of the single lab, to research which is truly global. Fifteen years ago, there were probably 100 labs around the world chipping away (often in splendid isolation) at the task of uncovering genetic variants influencing type 2 diabetes. Those efforts were fragmented and inefficient; progress was glacial.
Now, almost all of the groups with interests in the discovery of diabetes risk variants have come together to pool resources and data and expertise, and make common cause via consortia such as DIAGRAM. (DIAGRAM is part of a complex ecosystem of related, overlapping and interdigitating consortia that also includes MEDIA, DIAMANTE, SAT2D, AGEN, GoT2D, T2D-GENES, AMP-T2D and others). They have come together because science moves faster this way, and the discoveries we make and the results that we publish are way more robust. Together, we have the power to tell confident stories. Together, we can have far more of the critical discussion, and undertake more substantive validation and replication of findings before publication rather than after.
The risk variants we uncover are “common goods” available to all scientists. They can access those findings through publications, through data sharing [www.diagram-consortium.org], and through web portals [www.type2diabetesgenetics.org]. If they want, they can pull down much of the raw data (from repositories such as dbGAP or EGA). Even when we pool our efforts for discovery, there’s plenty of room for individual groups to express their own identity and interests in the follow-up of these variants, understanding what they can tell us about biology, and how we might use this information clinically.
Increasingly, these consortia are extending beyond the academic domain. Biotech and big pharma has seen the advantages, and now wants to contribute data and funding and expertise to perform joint collaborative research in the precompetitive space (for example, through the Innovative Medicines Initiative in Europe; and the Accelerating Medicines Partnership in the States).
But to make this work, we need the infrastructure to support such international collaboration. A global disease like diabetes needs a global response: and, from both a scientific and a moral perspective, it’s vital that we ensure that the research that is done is relevant to all those with diabetes, or at risk of it, whether they live in Atlanta or Ahmedabad; in Kobenhavn or Kinshasa.
There are few countries, if any, that can sustain science on this scale on their own. Much science funding comes with a national focus, and, with honourable exceptions (such as the US NIH and the Wellcome Trust) does not easily encourage transnational collaboration.
For those of us in Europe, funding through the European Commission (through vehicles like Framework Programmes, the European Research Council, and the Innovative Medicines Initiative) has been an essential component of that mix of funding. It is one on which we have increasingly come to rely to support the building and implementation of international research, and the free exchange of ideas, expertise, and people across the continent. My own institution (Oxford) receives around 15% of its medical research income from EU grants. Members of my current or recent research group in Oxford have come from over 20 countries including representatives of around half the member states of the EU (see map). The freedom of movement within the EU, and the ability to recruit the brightest and best from wherever, has been essential for the science that we do.
To give one example. Between 2008 and 2012, I participated and co-led research program called ENGAGE (European Network for Genetic and Genomic Epidemiology). Funded by the EU via Framework VII, and led by my friend and colleague Leena Peltonen, till her untimely death, this project united researchers across European with interests in the genetics of complex diseases like diabetes. The grant started just as the first wave of genome wide association studies (GWAS) had been published and the field was starting to feel its way towards the need for further advances to be based around the aggregation of data through meta-analysis. We weren’t sure how well that was going to work, and there was a lot to be done in developing methods, and harmonising data, as well as dealing with the more sociological aspects (running large distributed consortia, allocating credit). ENGAGE provided the funding (for researchers, for meetings, for research) and the infrastructure that allowed like-minded researchers to come together and solve these challenges. It helped to set the agenda of joint research in this field in Europe, and has spawned a family of additional and subsequent collaborations. In the narrow metrics of publication, ENGAGE contributed to over 150 publications, of which more than half were in the top journals. There’s no doubt that without ENGAGE, we would have been far less able to capitalise on the opportunities available, and that science would have proceeded more slowly.
Much of this is at risk as a result of recent events. For those of us in the UK, there’s now a serious threat to future funding. We may lose direct funding from the EU, and at the same time the economic downturn resulting from Brexit, will likely compromise the funding available through the research councils and UK-based charities. We may lose the chance to engage with large collaborative European programs. Researchers from overseas already in the UK, or those thinking of coming, will be wondering whether the UK is really the kind of place where they and their families can flourish professionally, or personally.
We are already seeing the impact. Despite reassurances that nothing will change till the UK actually leaves the EU (in 2019, maybe), there are already stories about UK researchers sidelined from future EU grant applications (why take the chance of complicating approval of a successful grant?). Potential recruits to the UK are rightly reconsidering their options.
Lest you regard all of this as special pleading on behalf of one section of society, remember how much of our current and future national prosperity is invested in, and predicated upon, the ability to continue to generate advances through science. You don’t build “a knowledge economy” by putting obstacles in the way of the acquisition of knowledge. Nor by making it difficult for the incredibly mobile, outward looking pool of the most talented researchers to see their future in the UK.
Perhaps, wise counsel will prevail. Perhaps – somehow – free movement of labour within the EU, together with low barriers to the recruitment of skilled researchers from beyond, will be maintained, and with it, participation in European funding schemes. Perhaps a government interested in ensuring that science and innovation remains at the heart of future wealth generation will find the motivation to step back from the brink, so that the UK can continue to be the research driver for the continent. Perhaps.