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UK science thrives on international collaboration but faces an uncertain future

UK science thrives on international collaboration but faces an uncertain future

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Stronger together. Shutterstock

Science is at the heart of the fight against COVID-19. While some scientists are busy developing drugs, vaccines and monitoring changes in the virus’s genetic material, others are studying the spread of the virus, informing policies that help to contain the infection. Science also underpins decision-making and treatment in hospital.

International collaboration is vital for science and medicine, and the pandemic has highlighted science’s global nature and the power of sharing ideas freely and widely. We’ve seen a massive rise in open access publications and researchers have embraced virtual meetings and conferences that bring together global expertise.

Science will also be crucial to the economic recovery. Directly or indirectly, virtually every element of the UK economy benefits from scientific research. And science is something that the UK excels at. With just 1% of the world’s population, the UK produces around 15% of the world’s most highly cited research publications. International companies recognise this excellence.

The UK’s scientific success depends on many factors, not least a network of research-intensive universities, and a long history of scholarship. But perhaps the most important factor is the international diversity and mobility of the UK scientific community.

Nearly one third of academic researchers in the UK are from overseas. At earlier career stages, including PhD level, no less than half are foreign nationals. The exchange of ideas drives innovation and helps initiate the international collaborations that give UK science its global reach. In fact, around half of the UK’s research output is the result of international collaborations.

The UK scientific community hasn’t always been so diverse. Forty years ago, the UK research environment was far from dull but, except in the very best laboratories, foreigners were thin on the ground. So what caused things to change so radically?

New Horizons

In the mid 1980s, the nine countries of the European Economic Community (EEC), including the UK, drew up a plan to support and expand European science – to enhance both health and economic prosperity. Funding would be directed to research that was collaborative, cross-border and carried out in association with an industrial partner.

The first Framework Programme (FP1) was launched in 1984 with a budget of €3.8 billion over three years. The funding level has steadily grown, along with community membership, with the latest programme – FP8 (renamed Horizon 2020) – running for seven years from 2013 with a budget approaching €80 billion. The next seven-year programme, Horizon Europe, will start next year and dispense a similar amount, even after reductions made in response to the COVID-19-induced financial crisis.

To put this in context, total research and development spending in the UK during the period of the FP7 programme (2006-13, the last for which complete figures are available) was €226 billion. Of this, 45% (€102 billion) came from industry, the Research Councils contributed 11%, charities 5% and just 3% (€6.9 billion) came from the EU.

EU money is valuable, of course, and many UK scientists have seen their research benefit from it. But by far the most important effect of the Framework/Horizon programmes has been their impact on the UK’s scientific community.

Over one third of postgraduate researchers and nearly one in five academic researchers, many at senior levels, are now from the EU. The UK’s diverse, vibrant, collaborative and extraordinarily successful research community is attributable, in large part, to the vision and ambition of the EU Horizon programmes.

A looming threat to UK science

The UK left the EU at the beginning of 2020 and is now in a transition period during which it must negotiate a new relationship with the 27 remaining EU nations. For the future of UK science, it’s essential that the country retains full access to Horizon Europe funding and maintains the network of collaborative links that has grown since the programme’s inception.

EU flag and stethoscope
Collaborative science can save lives. Shutterstock

That can be achieved through associate membership of the Horizon programme. Membership of Horizon Europe would allow UK scientists to continue to have full access to the collaborative grants and networks supported by the programme. Several non-EU countries, including Norway, Switzerland and Israel, already hold such membership. Yet, despite consistent warnings from the UK’s most eminent scientists, the government seems reluctant to grasp this opportunity.

The reluctance does not appear to be rooted in any antipathy towards science. Indeed, in the last budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak pledged to significantly increase public funding for research and development, to reach 0.8% of GDP by 2024/25. But access to collaboration is also essential, as we’ve already seen so clearly in 2020. Science flourishes in an environment of free exchange of ideas and people.

The UK’s Global Talent Visa, adopted after sustained pressure from leading scientists, is a good starting point, providing fast and affordable access to talented scientists with a recognised source of funding, such as Horizon 2020.

But on its own, this is not enough. Time is running out, and so we call on the government to move beyond warm words and make a firm and binding commitment to negotiate associate membership of Horizon Europe. This requires setting aside, in the science budget, a sum of money to cover membership, probably around €2.6 billion per year.

This seems a lot, but most will be recovered in collaborative grants to UK scientists, leaving a residual amount to cover administration and what can be regarded as a membership fee. The residual amount is subject to negotiation, but with goodwill on both sides, agreement should not be hard to reach. The benefits to both sides of continued collaboration are priceless.

Leaving the EU should not mean the UK must sever its connections to a European network of scientists and collaborative links, on which UK science thrives. As science underpins the UK’s healthcare and economy, it is in everyone’s interest to keep those collaborations going. Failure to reach such an agreement will be most rapidly felt by patients awaiting the outcome of, or participating in, international drug discovery work and clinical trials Simply put, failure to act will cost lives.

We can’t tackle the huge global challenges we face in isolation – scientists must be able to work together across borders.

Bryan Turner is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He received EU funding as a member of the Epigenome Network of Excellence (2004-10).

Alice Roberts works for the University of Birmingham. She has in the past received European Researchers' Night funding. She is currently President of the British Science Association.

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Las Vegas Strip faces growing bed bug problem

With huge events including Formula 1, CES, and the Super Bowl looming, the Las Vegas Strip faces an issue that could be a major cause for concern.

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Las Vegas beat the covid pandemic.

It wasn't that long ago when the Las Vegas Strip went dark and people questioned whether Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts, and other Strip players would emerge from the crisis intact. 

Related: Las Vegas Strip report shares surprising F1 race news

In the darkest days, the entire Las Vegas Strip was closed down and when it reopened, it was not business as usual. Caesars Entertainment (CZR) - Get Free Report and MGM reopened slowly with all sorts of government-mandated restrictions in place.

The first months of the Strip's comeback featured temperature checks, a lot of plexiglass, gaming tables with limited numbers of players, masks, and social distancing. It was an odd mix of celebration and restraint as people were happy to be in Las Vegas, but the Strip was oddly empty, some casinos remained closed, and gaming floors were sparsely filled. 

When vaccines became available, the Las Vegas Strip benefitted quickly. Business and international travelers were slow to return, but leisure travelers began bringing crowds back to pre-pandemic levels. 

The comeback, however, was very fragile. CES 2022 was supposed to be Las Vegas's return to normal, the first major convention since covid. In reality, surging cases of the covid omicron variant caused most major companies to pull out.

Even with vaccines and covid tests required, an event that was supposed to be close to normal, ended up with 25% of 2020's pre-covid attendance. That CES showed just how quickly public sentiment — not actual danger — can ruin an event in Las Vegas.

Now, with November's Formula 1 Race, CES in January, and the Super Bowl in February all slated for Las Vegas, a rising health crisis threatens all of those events.

The Arena Media Brands, LLC and respective content providers to this website may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Covid left Las Vegas casinos empty for months.

Image source: Palms Casino

The Las Vegas Strip has a bed bug problem   

While bed bugs may not be as dangerous as covid, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV),  Legionnaires’ disease, and some of the other infectious diseases that the Las Vegas Strip has faced over the past few years, they're still problematic. Bed bugs spread easily and a small infestation can become a large one quickly.

The sores caused by bed bugs are also a social media nightmare for the Las Vegas Strip. If even a few Las Vegas Strip visitors wake up covered in bed bug bites, that could become a viral nightmare for the entire city.

In late-August, reports came out the bed bugs had been at seven Las Vegas hotel, mostly on the Strip over the past two years. The impacted properties includes Caesars Planet Hollywood and Caesars Palace as well as MGM Resort International's (MGM) - Get Free Report MGM Grand, and others including Circus Circus, The Palazzo, Tropicana, and Sahara.

VISIT LAS VEGAS: Are you ready to plan your dream Las Vegas Strip getaway?

"Now, that number is nine with the addition of The Venetian and Park MGM. According to the health department report, a Venetian guest reported seeing the bloodsuckers on July 29 and was moved to another room. An inspection three days later confirmed their presence," Casino.org reported.

The Park MGM bed bug incident took place on Aug. 14.

Bed bugs remain a Las Vegas Strip problem

Only Tropicana, which is soon going to be demolished, and Sahara, responded to Casino.org about their bed bug issues. Caesars and MGM have not commented publicly or responded to requests from KLAS or Casino.org.

That makes sense because the resorts do not want news to spread about potential bed bug problems when the actual incidents have so far been minimal. The problem is that unreported bed bug issues can rapidly snowball.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shares some guidelines on bed bug bites on its website that hint at the depth of the problem facing Las Vegas Strip resorts.

"Regularly wash and heat-dry your bed sheets, blankets, bedspreads and any clothing that touches the floor. This reduces the number of bed bugs. Bed bugs and their eggs can hide in laundry containers/hampers. Remember to clean them when you do the laundry," the agency shared.

Normally, that would not be an issue in Las Vegas as rooms are cleaned daily. Since the covid pandemic, however, some people have opted out of daily cleaning and some resorts have encouraged that.

F1? SUPER BOWL? MARCH MADNESS? Plan a dream Las Vegas getaway.

Not having daily room cleaning in just a few rooms could lead to quick spread.

"Bed bugs spread so easily and so quickly, that the University of Kentucky's entomology department notes that "it often seems that bed bugs arise from nowhere."

"Once bed bugs are introduced, they can crawl from room to room, or floor to floor via cracks and openings in walls, floors and ceilings," warned the University's researchers.  

 

       

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Americans are having a tough time repaying pandemic-era loans received with inflated credit scores

Borrowers are realizing the responsibility of new debts too late.

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With the economy of the United States at a standstill during the Covid-19 pandemic, the efforts to stimulate the economy brought many opportunities to people who may have not had them otherwise. 

However, the extension of these opportunities to those who took advantage of the times has had its consequences.

Related: American Express reveals record profits, 'robust' spending in Q3 earnings report

Credit Crunch

GLASTONBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 12: In this photo illustration the Visa, Mastercard and American Express logos are seen on credit and debit cards on March 14, 2022 in Somerset, England. Visa, American Express and Mastercard have all announced they are suspending operations in Russia and credit and debit cards issued by Russian banks will no longer work outside of the country. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

A report by the Financial Times states that borrowers in the United States that took advantage of lending opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic are falling behind on actually paying back their debt.

At a time when stimulus checks were handed out and loan repayments were frozen to help those affected by the economic shock of Covid-19, many consumers in the States saw that lenders became more willing to provide consumer credit.

According to a report by credit reporting agency TransUnion, the median consumer credit score jumped 20% to a peak of 676 in the first quarter of 2021, allowing many to finally have “good” credit scores. However, their data also showed that those who took out loans and credit from 2021 to early 2023 are having an hard time managing these debts.

“Consumer finance companies used this opportunity to juice up their growth at a time when funding was ample and consumers’ finances had gotten an artificial boost,” Chief economist of Moody’s Analytics Mark Zandi told FT. “Certainly a lot of lower-income households that got caught up in all of this will feel financial pain.”

Moody’s data shows that new credit cards accounts that were opened in the first quarter of 2023 have a 4% delinquency rate, while the same rate in September 2022 was 4.5%. According to the analysts, these levels were the highest for the same point of the year since 2008.

Additionally, a study by credit scoring company VantageScore found that credit cards issued in March 2022 had higher delinquency rates than cards issued at the same time during the prior four years.

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Credit cards were not the only debts that American consumers took on. As per S&P Global Ratings data, riskier car loans taken on during the height of the pandemic have more repayment problems than in previous years. In 2022, subprime borrowers were becoming delinquent on new cars loans at twice the rate of pre-pandemic levels.

S&P auto loan tracker Amy Martin told FT that lenders during the pandemic were “rather aggressive” in terms of signing new loans.

Bill Moreland of research group BankRegData has warned about these rising delinquencies in the past and had recently estimated that by late 2022, there were hundreds of billions of dollars in what he calls “excess lending based upon artificially inflated credit scores”.

The Government's Role

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: U.S. President Donald Trump's name appears on the coronavirus economic assistance checks that were sent to citizens across the country April 29, 2020 in Washington, DC. The initial 88 million payments totaling nearly $158 billion were sent by the Treasury Department last week as most of the country remains under stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Because so many are failing to pay their bills, many are wary that the government assistance may have been a financial double-edged sword; as they were meant to alleviate financial stress during lockdown, while it led some of them to financial difficulty.

The $2.2 trillion Cares Act federal aid package passed in the early stages of the pandemic not only put cash in the American consumer’s pocket, but also protected borrowers from foreclosure, default and in some instances, lenders were barred from reporting late payments to credit bureaus.

Yeshiva University law professor Pam Foohey specializes in consumer bankruptcy and believes that the Cares Act was good policy, however she shifts the blame away from the consumers and borrowers.

“I fault lenders and the market structure for not having a longer-term perspective. That’s not something that the Cares Act should have solved and it still exists and still needs to be addressed.”

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Inflation: raising interest rates was never the right medicine – here’s why central bankers did it anyway

We need to start cutting rates, but there’s something that has to happen first.

Pain, no gain? Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey. IMF, CC BY-SA

Inflation remains too high in the UK. The annual rate of consumer price inflation to September was 6.7%, the same as a month earlier. This is well below the 11.1% peak reached in October 2022, but the failure of inflation to keep falling indicates it is proving far more stubborn than anticipated.

This may prompt the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to raise the benchmark interest rate yet again when it meets in November, but in my view this would not be entirely justified.

In reality, the rate hikes that began two years ago have not been very helpful in tackling inflation, at least not directly. So what’s the problem and is there a better alternative?

Right policy, wrong inflation

Raising interest rates is the MPC’s main tool for trying to get inflation back to its target rate of 2%. The idea is that this makes it more expensive to borrow money, which should reduce consumer demand for goods and services.

The trouble is that the type of inflation recently witnessed in the UK seems less a problem of excessive demand than because costs have been rising for manufacturers and service providers. It’s known as “cost-push inflation” as opposed to “demand-pull inflation”.

Inflation rates (UK, US, eurozone)

Graph comparing inflation rates of UK, US and eurozone
UK = dark blue; eurozone = turquoise; US = orange. Trading View

Production costs have risen for several reasons. During the COVID-19 pandemic, central banks “created money” through quantitative easing to enable their governments to run large spending deficits to pay for furloughs and other interventions to help citizens through the crisis.

When countries started reopening, it meant people had money in their pockets to buy more goods and services. Yet with China still in lockdown, global supply chains could not keep pace with the resurgent demand so prices went up – most notably oil.

Oil price (Brent crude, US$)

Chart showing price of Brent crude oil
Trading View

Then came the Ukraine war, which further drove up prices of fundamental commodities, such as energy. This made inflation much worse than it would otherwise have been. You can see this reflected in consumer price inflation (CPI): it was just 0.6% in the year to June 2020, then rose to 2.5% in the year to June 2021, reflecting the supply constraints at the end of lockdown. By June 2022, four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, CPI was 9.4%.

The policy problem

This begs the question, why has the Bank of England (BoE) been raising rates if it’s unlikely to be effective? One answer is that other central banks have been raising rates. If the BoE doesn’t mirror rate rises in the US and eurozone, investors in the UK may move their money to these other areas because they’ll get better returns on bonds. This would see the pound depreciating against the US dollar and euro, in turn increasing import prices and aggravating inflation.

Part of the problem has been that the US has arguably faced more of the sort of demand-led inflation against which interest rates are effective. For one thing, the US has been less at the mercy of rising energy prices because it is energy self-sufficient. It also didn’t lock down as uniformly as other major economies during the pandemic, so had a little more space to grow.

At the same time, the US has been more effective at bringing down inflation than the UK, which again suggests it was fighting demand-driven price rises. In other words, the UK and other countries may to some extent have been forced to follow suit with raising interest rates to protect their currencies, not to fight inflation.

What next

How harmful have the rate rises been in the UK? They have not brought about a recession yet, but growth remains very weak. Lots of people are struggling with the cost of living, as well as rent or mortgage costs. Several million people are due to be hit by much higher mortgage rates as their fixed-rate deals end between now and the end of 2024.

UK GDP growth (%)

Chart showing the annual rate of GDP growth
Trading View

If hiking interest rates is not really helping to curb inflation, it makes sense to start moving in the opposite direction before the economic situation gets any worse. To avoid any damage to the pound, the answer is for the leading central banks to coordinate their policies so that they cut rates in lockstep.

Unless and until this happens, there would seem to be no quick fix available. One piece of good news is that the energy price cap for typical domestic consumption was reduced from October 1 from £1,976 to £1,834 a year. That 7% reduction should lead to consumer price inflation coming down significantly towards the end of 2023.

More generally, the Bank of England may simply have to hope that world events move inflation in the desired direction. A key question is going to be whether the wars in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza result in further cost pressures.

Unfortunately there is a precedent for a Middle East conflict leading to a global economic crisis: following the joint assault on Israel by Syria and Egypt in 1973, Israel’s retaliation prompted petroleum cartel OPEC to impose an oil embargo. This led to an almost fourfold increase in the price of crude oil.

Since oil was fundamental to the costs of production, inflation in the UK rose to over 16% in 1974. There followed high unemployment, resulting in an unwelcome combination that economists referred to as stagflation.

These days, global production is in fact less reliant on oil as renewables have become a growing part of the energy mix. Nonetheless, an oil price hike would still drive inflation higher and weaken economic growth. So if the Middle East crisis does spiral, we may be stuck with stubborn, untreatable inflation for even longer.

Robert Gausden does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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