Does Brexit spell catastrophe for science?

Recently, I had the good fortune of benefitting from some media training from by http://www.mediawoman.co.uk/. This was an empowering experience, providing straightforward, easy to implement guidance of how to prepare for media interview. My main takeaway being: prepare (at most) 3-4 key messages, which you deliver with clear, simple language, in at most 3 short sentences, using relatable examples/analogies. The on camera practice was invaluable.

One of the case-studies we were asked to prepare for the day was: ‘British scientists need to wake up to the opportunities presented by Brexit – that’s the message from the prime minister.’ Naturally, like most scientists I am vehemently against Brexit, mostly for social mobility and welfare reasons, not to mention horror at the anti immigration rhetoric, which is so against the values of collaboration and cooperation on which modern science is founded. However, I was also terrified about what it meant for research funding and long-term job security: one statistic I was given was that 1/4 of all funding comes from the EU. So, it was something of a surprise when my research on the topic resulted in a much more balanced piece than first planned.

Thus, for anyone else in need of reassuring that Brexit does not need to spell complete catastrophe for science (spoiler alert it’s still going to be bad) I thought I would post my findings here. I do think it important to stress that my analysis is not comprehensive, nor free of bias. It was quick and may be naive. I work mostly in the health-care tech sector and this is likely to be protected from some of the most major disruption. Further, whatever Brexit means for science I still believe it is fundamentally wrong and divisive. For that reason I will be marching on March 23rd to campaign for a People’s Vote with which to stop it completely.

Discuss:

‘British scientists need to wake up to the opportunities presented by Brexit – that’s the message from the prime minister.’

It is important to remember that UK universities, science and research have an extremely strong reputation worldwide. We have a long history of world class research and innovation dating back to before we were part of the EU. Around 1/5th of the top universities in the world are from the UK. This has led to significant investment in science and technology companies within the UK with London ranking 3rd in the world for technology start-ups. None of this necessarily needs to change as a result of Brexit.

Unfortunately, currently Brexit presents significant risk to science and innovation in this country. A significant proportion (~12%) of UK research funding comes from the EU and from this the UK is a net beneficiary (putting in less money than we get out). Further, many of the successes attributed to UK research come through wider collaborations with European Colleagues, funded with EU money and founded on the principles of free-movement (meaning that if Brexit takes a form that blocks free movement then we will no longer be invited to take part). There is already significant evidence that UK universities are missing out on funding opportunities as a result of this Brexit uncertainty and there have been some high-profile examples of UK universities being kicked out of EU research programs (for example the Galileo European GPS satellite system). This has been a considerable blow to UK universities already.

On top of this the government is increasingly making the UK less attractive to top talent (from UK and worldwide) from by tightening immigration laws, making it more difficult to travel to the EU and refusing to guarantee the status of EU nationals already working in the UK. Working conditions in UK universities are already some of the poorest in the world, with long, unsociable hours, stagnating, low pay on unstable and sometimes zero-hour contracts. Whilst many people are understandably concerned about immigration it is important to point out that scientific research has always been a multinational and collaborative endeavour. Much of most famous scientific discoveries attributed to this country were led by scientists from EU and overseas. Without this the sector would not be as successful as it has been or have the value that it does.

Brexit also threatens to impact the attractiveness of the UK to EU students by raising the cost of study considerably as well as making the country appear hostile to EU citizens. EU students make up 6% of all students in the UK and 2% of the budget. However, it is important to note that a larger proportion of overseas students do come from outside the EU with a large proportion of these from China – an area which is currently still expanding.

It is important to remember that the scientific community is internationally connected. In my personal experience, the largest international collaborative project I have worked on was in fact NIH funded and led by American universities. Thus, with the right incentives and funding programmes there could still be significant opportunity. With this in mind, the UK government has already launched a £100 million Rutherford fund for early career scientists from developing nations and collaborative UK-China schemes exist for funding research training scholarships for Chinese students..

So, whilst Brexit in-of-itself does not have to mean catastrophe for British science, continued success is going to be heavily dependent on future government policy: this would mean significant increases in government commitments to research funding and international collaborations, continued commitments to membership of European funding schemes and careful consideration of immigration policy and workers rights.

Currently the government is expanding international research funding, for example with a commitment to significant increase research spending – to the tune of £2 billion a year by 2020 to 2021 (an increase of around 20%). Further it has committed to maintaining membership of current EU programmes and matching spending in the result of a no deal Brexit. However, this presents limited ongoing reassurance as future membership of these programs would require a commitment to free movement, something the current deal proposed by the conservatives is stringently against. Further, current projections of an economic downturn following Brexit would put future government spending at risk.

Given the uncertainty of future Government spending, Universities may benefit from pursuing new strategies for funding. The UK benefits from significantly higher investment in science and tech than most other countries – with funding coming from global sources. It is important to harness and perpetuate this resource by seeking partnerships with industry to fund and direct research. This is something that is already being done – take for example the new AI technology centres for healthcare set up as partnerships between the government and industry. These strategies promise to focus research towards solutions of real-world problems. But there is a concern that this may constrain researchers to work on problems with short-term, achievable and monetizable goals. In the case of healthcare, for example this would mean that rare or highly complex diseases would be side-lined in favour of bigger targets such as obesity and dementia research.

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