Brexit and the future of science.

28511208196_4ab653f0e5Although normally across the other side of the world, I was actually in the UK when this vote was taken. Surely, I assumed, there could be only one sensible outcome. Sadly, that remained true but the decision was anything but Remain! Trying to explain that to people in Scotland, where we were staying, left me clutching my Australian passport, suddenly ashamed to admit to the vocal population that I was British.

In subsequent days, it was clear that the world (or our little bit of it) was not going to end but there were likely to be changes, few of which made it into the campaign. Let’s face it, very little did get into the campaign. It was a woeful exercise from the poorly thought out Referendum Act 2015 to the lacklustre (Remain) and fault-ridden (Leave) campaign whipped up by a media with their own agenda. No-one should feel that anyone came out of it with any dignity from the first moments until the final shambles of re-arranging the chief architects (hello May, goodbye Cameron, Corbyn (?), Gove and Johnson) – which looks far more like the internal machinations of Conservative Party in-fighting played out against a backdrop of an international politics. Yes Minister couldn’t have written a better script!:

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We ‘had’ to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch… The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

Thanks, Wikiquotes!

Whilst it makes great TV, this is a real situation. Back in the (slightly more?) real world, there is a requirement that Britain invokes Article 50 to start the exit process (but see other perspectives here, here and here); the untangling of hundreds of agreements that bind Britain ever closer to continental Europe. A key argument since the referendum (and, like it or not, unless it’s over-turned by the courts, it stays!) is that there will be very little difference in trade etc. until Article 50 in invoked and we start the formal leaving process. My concern here is not the paucity of the Civil Service in managing the process but the fact that it is already starting to affect the UK and the impact will be significant and far-reaching.

My concern here focusses on science (essentially ecological, but it goes across all sectors of science). It’s generally agree that science and innovation will provide a substantial proportion of innovation for industrial development (hence the worries over the selling of ARM to Japanese interests). For years, it has been acknowledged that the UK provides great bang-for-buck with science. We have some of the best collaborators and a high level of Nobel Laureates for a surprisingly small amount of money. We get/got more money from the EU than we put in. Britain fights above its weight in science and now this is already (forget Article 50) starting to unravel. Discussing this with a scientist relative currently working in the UK drove me to investigate further.  Luckily/sadly, it didn’t take much to uncover at least part of the story: I can start with my own British Ecological Society whose recent posts gave me a solid starting point.

Let’s start with the news release by the Royal Institute of Biology:

“It is well proven that research and the biosciences are a key engine for sustainable growth and public benefit for the UK. …Science by its very nature is a collaboration. Strong research partnerships with EU-based scientists will continue to be essential for the UK. Ease of exchange and movement of people will remain critical. ”

About 3 weeks later, this view is amplified and reinforced by a joint statement by scientific academies. There is no doubt the Brexit will impact science and learning. Already, the highly successful ERASMUS scheme is in doubt, at least from the British perspective. The BES itself puts out a statement to highlight its commitment to international collaboration (usefully, given this member is classified as ‘overseas’!).

A Lords Select Committee examined the EU/GB relationship in science earlier this year. Out of all the material gathered, two points should stick in the mind: science funding is about 20% of EU expenditure and the UKs position is amongst the highest. Now that the decision to leave has started, how much of this will remain in place? Already scientists with EU connections are thinking about their research grants or, simply, relocating. Grants are not being replaced at the moment and with their 2-5 year time-lag, the impact of Article 50 could be a decade in the resolution. No wonder the government is starting to consider the impact on science of leaving. It’s this committee that our learned societies are contributing to. They have a series of questions that need answers and I doubt many will be currently impressed by Minister’s rhetoric.

It’s a pity the original debate was not fuller. We need to wait the outcome of all these negotiations. You can remain hopeful but current evidence suggests otherwise. It’s no good the government publishing papers praising the value of science and the knowledge economy; it’s what they can deliver now that will determine the course of science.

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