What might Brexit hold for UK science and research?

What might Brexit hold for UK science and research?

We are now less than a year away from ‘B-day’, and despite regular feelings of Brexit apathy due to the endless commentary about what is (but mostly isn’t) happening, the ‘cliff’ still looms large over many of us Brits.

Speaking shortly after the vote in June 2016, Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize winner and director of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Science thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers and are open to free exchange and collaboration.

Benefiting from nearly £1bn a year for research from the European Union, there are not many scientists in this country who are counting down to Brexit. But, as the full consequences of the decision become clearer, if anyone can spot opportunities and move forward with stoicism, if not optimism, researchers surely can.

The ‘must-haves’

Following the major fall-out in June 2016, there still remains concern for researchers (and, of course, countless other employees across most industries) from other member states and how our exit from the Union may affect them and our ability to attract their contemporaries. There was some reassurance from the phase 1 negotiations, with both sides agreeing that until the UK permanently leaves the EU, UK citizens living in EU, and EU citizens living in UK will have the right to free movement, and can continue “to live, work or study as they currently do under the same conditions as under Union law.”

Now that we are finally moving onto phase 2 of negotiations, which is set to focus on the transition period, what does the research community want to see?

  • People: we must remain able to retain and attract people with the skills we need, wherever they are from, into the future. Additionally, British researchers should be able to easily work in the EU to develop their skills and networks.
  • Funding: if EU funding for research in the UK is reduced or withdrawn, the British Government may need to make up the shortfall if the UK is to remain at the forefront of science and innovation.
  • Collaboration and networks: access should be maintained for UK and EEA researchers to world-class facilities in the EU and the UK. Any barriers to forging multinational partnerships and collaborations should be minimised.
  • Regulation and trade: as well as ensuring alignment with important global and EU regulations, it is also hoped that UK experts will have a voice in shaping those of the future, where their expertise is relevant. It is also important to ensure that there is no ‘legislative limbo’, where pending EU regulations that are not currently on the statute in the UK are lost as the UK leaves the Union.

The bright side

While many of us feel like it’s all doom and gloom, what might be the positives for British science and research?

The UK government has stated its ambition to: “agree a far-reaching science and innovation agreement with the EU that establishes a framework for future collaboration”. As with the entire project, this sounds like we are going to try to ‘have our cake and eat it’ as the saying goes, but who knows which areas of negotiation we will have to (or be willing to) compromise on the most?

The agreement reached between the UK and EU in December 2017 means that the UK will continue to pay net contributions until the end of the current EU budget plan in 2020 and therefore will continue to participate in Horizon 2020 to its end, a welcome result for many.

There are already a number of mechanisms in place to enable scientific institutions and researchers in non-EU countries to participate in, and receive funding from, EU Framework Programmes. So in this regard, Brexit might not mean Brexit after all!

A recent report by the London-based Wellcome Trust, one of Europe’s largest research funders, in collaboration with the Royal Society and drawing on consultations with 200 European scientists and policymakers, proposed that a powerful European Research Area (ERA) should emerge after Brexit. It should involve increased scientific collaboration across the EU and associated countries — including the UK, Switzerland and Norway.

The ERA already exists as “an area of free circulation of researchers, knowledge and technology” set up by the EU in 2000. It is open to non-member states that adhere to its principles — including the full mobility of scientists, free flow of data for research and aligned research regulation. The Wellcome report recommends that the UK sign up to these principles after Brexit.

When it comes to regulation, Brexit may allow us the opportunity to pioneer new regulatory approaches on emerging technologies and the development and commercialisation of new products. We can also look at optimising our regulatory processes to ensure that they support cutting-edge science and trade.

Brexit’s likely legacy

With a major consequence of the Brexit vote being questions from our close neighbours about our friendship and spirit of collaboration, I have no doubt that our British resolve will push us, especially in the borderless fields of science and research, to seek more collaboration and alignment than ever before.

The biggest concern I have personally is that the deep social divisions the Brexit vote unearthed within our own borders are simply being plastered over, if being repaired at all and that, unfortunately, might characterise the most lasting legacy of Brexit.






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