Skip to content

Brexit and science: one month on

28 Jul 2016

CaSE Director Dr Sarah Main welcomes the Prime Minister’s commitment to science research, and outlines priorities for the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU.

A month on from the EU referendum, we are all getting stuck in to how to make this work. We begin to realise that ‘post-Brexit’ doesn’t quite work as a term to refer to the time after the 23rd June 2016, as the reality of several years of political chess stretch ahead of us before ‘Brexit’ happens. And in this shifting period of negotiation, lies our opportunity to help UK science not just survive, but flourish.

When asked ‘what does science want’ in the last few weeks, I have replied that the most important thing is for the new Government to set out its ambition for science and engineering. Does the Prime Minister see science and engineering as central to delivering the growth that she would like to distribute more equitably across society? Does she see the UK’s extraordinary success in science and research as a strength to build on; as essential for our health sector, for our edge as a financial centre, as the UK’s USP? If she does, then the rest will follow. We can set out the policies that will enable science and engineering to thrive – on skills, people, investment. We can work to the best possible solution on regulation, standards, access to markets. But all that will be so much more achievable if the top of Government believes that science is the UK’s trump card.

So it is great news that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has expressed her commitment to science and research and her priority of providing reassurance to scientists working in the UK and abroad. In a letter to Sir Paul Nurse, the Prime Minister states, “I would like to reassure you about the government’s commitment to ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as we exit the European Union.” I’m sure everyone, like me, will feel relieved and reassured by these words and anxious to put this commitment into action.

So how do we do that? We know that science needs a clear voice to be heard among the many competing interests in the Brexit negotiations and in the new Government’s priorities at home. The day after the referendum, I issued a call for us to gather around some key principles. We now need to work through with the sector a more detailed and quantified set of priorities with concrete evidence to back it up. 

I will use CaSE’s strengths to make our contribution. We are good at bringing people together. We are good at relaying views from across the sector, whether harmonised or nuanced. And we are good at building trusted relationships in the heart of Government.

We will work on two fronts: convening the science and engineering community, distilling its core messages and turning them in to policy proposals; and making a clear case to the Government about the value of science and engineering of itself and as an enabler for the core sectors of the UK economy.

As ever, CaSE will act as a conduit between these two communities – scientific and Parliamentary. With new ministers and new departmental structures in place, we will have to make the case for science from first principles in many quarters. The champions of science in BEIS and Treasury will continue to fight for it, but there are now many more departments where the fate of science can be swayed and where we cannot assume that champions of science are already in place.

The core policies CaSE will focus on for UK science and engineering to flourish in the world will be:

  • investment – both its quantity and the nature of what it is used to fund
  • migration – ensuring the flow of people, skills and ideas
  • regulation – enabling a global approach to challenges by sharing data, work and trade using common standards and regulation
  • access – to opportunities for collaboration, facilities, expertise and markets

We will be looking for the positives and the opportunities. One is the possibility to reach an agreement on the exemption of VAT on sharing of buildings, equipment and facilities for the purposes of R&D. CaSE first raised this in its 2014 briefing on investment. It was highlighted by the Dowling review as an urgent priority for resolution. Treasury told us it was difficult to resolve because it fell under EU regulation. So now, we have the opportunity to make industry, academia and charity collaborations more attractive, easing the path to knowledge exchange, growth to the economy and benefit to society that Government wants.

There is much at stake and we need to work hard to make the case for why the Government’s support for science and engineering will be to the benefit of the society that the Prime Minister intends to serve.

Read CaSE’s full briefing on VAT in the science and engineering community