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Here’s how we can be a science superpower outside of the EU

29 Mar 2018

CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main on Brexit and science, one year on from the triggering of Article 50

This article was originally featured on The Telegraph website, which can be found here

Science is a success story in our relationship with the European Union. A web of collaborations, shared facilities and cross-border research programmes has grown up over the decades, shaped and influenced by the UK, which has led to a rich flow of ideas, people and research funds into the UK.

Nearly a fifth of all money received by the UK from the EU is for research and development, the largest amount after farming. The frameworks for pan-European research programmes incentivise collaboration and ease legal and regulatory burdens, providing an easy platform for UK businesses and researchers to operate across borders. These platforms for collaboration, combined with ease of movement, have led to a particularly international workforce in UK science, with 16% of academic staff and 20% of the London tech industry being European nationals.

However, a year on from the triggering of Article 50, the uncertainties of Brexit are beginning to bite.  Businesses, universities and charities that depend on research for their success report impacts on recruitment, relocation decisions and income. These include falls in application rates from EU nationals and candidates turning down prestigious research positions citing Brexit uncertainty. At a national level, there has been a downturn in the UK’s success at winning European research funding. In the last year, UK businesses have fallen from being the second highest recipient of European research funding, behind Germany, to the fifth. The UK’s total share of European research funding has also dropped, including the key indicator of share of EU projects in which the UK are the lead coordinator. Businesses report contingency planning that includes relocation or expansion of operations in mainland Europe to mitigate risks and meet regulatory requirements.

The root cause behind many of these effects is nervousness – a hesitancy to pick the UK as the partner or destination of choice. In a collaborative game like science, this shaking of the UK’s reputation could have considerable consequences. Not only might it impact on our scientific standing and success, but it could have knock-on economic effects on the growth of high-skilled jobs and on access to the benefits of new innovations. For example, a global pharmaceutical firm told me that UK patients could be left waiting two years longer than European citizens for access to new medicines if the UK leaves the European Medicines Agency.

The UK is a science superpower. Surely we want everyone in the UK to benefit from the advantages that brings to health, wellbeing and quality of life.

The Government has been energetic in its vision for the UK as a global science leader and a magnet for innovators and entrepreneurs. It has taken a number of steps to indicate the UK’s enthusiasm to continue a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the European Union on research and innovation. Alongside this, it has invested heavily in UK research and development, making the UK’s scientific strength a driver of the new industrial strategy. Yet, we can see from the evidence of the last year that these steps have not been enough to settle nerves among scientists and businesses who have globally-mobile capital to invest where they choose.

The ideal way to address this would be for the Government to act swiftly to secure an ambitious agreement on research and innovation with the European Union. This would be a ‘win-win’, harnessing the will on both sides of the channel for continued scientific partnership. Whether or not this is possible within the negotiations, it will be important to ensure science and innovation interests are visibly present at the negotiating table as a signal to the watching world.

In parallel to the negotiations, the Government can act to unleash the UK’s science and engineering potential by coordinating policies across departments. The UK environment for science and engineering is internationally competitive, but there are areas for development. Leaving the European Union provides a reset point to address some of these areas.

The UK can get its own house in order by preparing to be a science superpower outside of the European Union. I have been told by scientific businesses that the UK’s weak pound is an attractor at the moment. Surely we can do better than that.

The UK’s scientific talent pool is outstanding, as is our creative approach to scientific discovery and partnership between academia and industry. The UK can capitalise on that by getting the visa system right, now and post-Brexit, to make sure the UK truly can be a magnet for talent.

The Government has recently made a historic step-change in its investment in science. Lets ensure that helps attract further investment from around the world by packaging our research strengths for international trade and diplomacy as part of an international research and innovation strategy.

Finally, the UK has great strength and reputation in its rational, ethical and evidence-based approach to difficult issues in areas of rapidly evolving research and innovation. Regulation is what makes scientific innovations usable. It is clear that the immediate priority for research organisations is for stability and harmonisation of regulation with the European Union, with continued influence. But the UK can prepare to lead the world by embedding an innovative and nimble approach to regulation in emerging areas of scientific discovery and innovation, ensuring they can be applied safely and ethically.