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UK advantage requires good deal for science

07 Nov 2018

With crunch time rapidly approaching on securing a deal in the Brexit negotiations, CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main sets out why the UK’s long-term competitive edge requires a good deal for science with the EU.

The temperature of ‘deal or no deal’ speculation has risen in the media over the autumn, whilst in the corridors of Whitehall the determinedly calm talk has been of ‘orderly’ or ‘disorderly’ EU Exit.

Surely these terms belie a far more complex truth. Yet, whatever the intricacies of this negotiation, it remains patently clear that the prospects for the UK are enhanced by a ‘good deal’ – one that enables the UK to be a leader in scientific exploration, discovery and innovation for the long term.  

At a time of division in politics, there is unusual accord on the goal for the UK to be a leader in science, innovation and research for the next generation. The three leading UK parties have made commitments to approximately double the UK’s research and development activity, measured in amount spent on R&D across the economy, over the next ten to fifteen years.

The Prime Minister has been vocal on this point, calling for the UK to be a ‘magnet’ for innovators and entrepreneurs and ‘a global centre for scientific discovery and creativity’. The Government has put its money where its mouth is, kickstarting a rise in public spending on research and development (R&D) of an additional £2bn per year by 2020, bringing the total investment in R&D from the public purse to £12bn per year. Further, it has set an ambitious target for UK spending on R&D to increase by half, from 1.7% to 2.4% of GDP, by 2027. This would represent a step-change in the UK’s scientific power. The UK operating at that level of research activity, across universities, businesses, charities and philanthropy, would surely be a force to be reckoned with, a global leader.

So, amid the uncertainties of Brexit, the Government is backing a high-tech, high skills UK offer to the world; and opposition parties would do the same.

But Brexit poses particular risks to science because of the fabric of the interactions built up over decades with the European Union that sustain scientific cooperation. Regulatory, legal and financial frameworks encourage and sustain multilateral collaboration, borne of the flow of ideas and expertise. As the Wellcome Trust’s Director and Chair wrote in a letter to party leaders in 2017, “The EU’s Framework Programme Funding does this exceptionally well, stimulating excellence and partnership where many schemes with similar intent have failed”, and echoed by the recent letter to the Prime Minister from 29 Nobel Laureates.

Recent discussions of the implications of a ‘no deal’ scenario with Europe have illustrated the potential disruption of Brexit to the delivery of science-based products and services that benefit society, from health to aviation and security. Disclosure of contingency planning by hospitals for stockpiling medicines and aerospace companies for stockpiling parts have brought home the dependencies of research-led organisations on the EU and the risks associated to UK citizens.

But, as alarming as the thought of border disruption is, it is the longer-term impact on the scientific innovations of tomorrow that gives me greater concern. Brexit poses challenges to the progress of development of science-led innovations and the ability to provide them to people, through regulation and safety legislation. Just one example is the assertion that new medicines could be made available to UK patients significantly later than those in the EU if the approvals process does not align.

The new treatments and new vehicles of tomorrow are coming, and I would certainly want to see the UK playing to its considerable strengths in helping them arrive with the best science, engineering, ingenuity, legal, safety and ethical consideration possible. Headlines about driverless cars will give way to pilotless planes. Remotely-piloted flights, I’m told, are already possible today (waiting for regulation to catch up) and battery-powered planes are coming. The impact of machine learning and artificial intelligence is set to be transformational across all sectors, and the pace fast. The UK is strong in that particular combination of maths, computing and social sciences that enables us to anticipate the issues.

If the UK is to be a leader in scientific exploration, discovery and innovation, the Government must make sure that the structures are in place to ensure the UK is a hotspot for science and innovation and a place where people can benefit promptly from its progress. That will require international cooperation and agreements that support research and innovation on movement of people, legal and financial structures for collaboration, and regulation.

Parliamentary business in the coming months will be critical on these issues. An immigration bill is expected imminently. Creating a streamlined system that supports science and innovation, alongside other sectors, by making the UK an attractive destination for research and innovation activities will be vital to ensure the UK becomes the ‘magnet’ that the Prime Minister wishes. The challenges of creating such a system are no-doubt considerable. But this is a moment to embrace the UK’s technological and design expertise to create a high-tech, forward-looking system.

Negotiations are ongoing as to the UK’s future participation in European research programmes that provide the legal and financial frameworks to enable and incentivise collaboration. The UK has provided leadership in these programmes for many years and helped shape research programmes to tackle many of the challenges facing society that are better tackled together, from rare diseases to mental health to space exploration. The UK’s research community has reaped the rewards of this participation, and been among the top one or two recipients of EU research awards for a decade, providing an important source of financial support and collaborative opportunities for academia and businesses. Surely it is to the UK’s advantage to not only to contribute but to lead these multilateral efforts in the decades to come.

Regulation will be particularly difficult to untangle. It is regulation that allows new innovations to be made safely and promptly available to people to use. It allows research across borders to take place on a common basis, such as clinical trials for rare diseases, and markets to be opened up. In rapidly-evolving fields of science and technology, regulation and legislation have to ‘keep up’ in order to be able to bring new innovations safely to society. The UK has led thinking in Europe on numerous regulatory issues. UK regulators are respected and I believe the UK has a genuine global strength in its rational approach to the development of regulation alongside public dialogue. Therefore one important and unresolved question is how the UK retains the influence to evolve European regulation in emerging areas of science and innovation post-Brexit.

So, in all the discussion to come on our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, I hope that politicians and negotiators remember that science provides the competitive edge and the transformational change in many of the sectors at the top of their agenda: security, health, food, energy and many more. The UK has outstanding capability in research and innovation. To make the most of it, lets make sure we can work across borders to amplify our capability and deliver its benefits.