Brexit And UK Science And Technology: A Big Leap Into The Unknown And The Uncertain

I’ll concede that my U.K. readers are likely well aware of everything here and certainly better informed.  Feel free to move along.

The June 23 referendum in the U.K. that turned in favor of the nation leaving the E.U. prompted a great deal of uncertainty.  In a poll conducted by Nature pre-referendum, notable majorities of both U.K. researchers and E.U. researchers (not including the U.K.) preferred that the U.K. remain.  While the U.K. remains a member of the E.U. for now, the chance that it is leaving could give pause to a host of potential collaborations.  And perhaps that is the most significant impact of the so-called Brexit on both the U.K. and its European neighbors.

There are two main reasons for this.  First, and what has been most immediately felt (if just anecdotally), is the potential restrictions on the freedom of movement members of the European Union enjoy.  With minimal limitations, nationals of an E.U. state have the right to work in another E.U. state comparable to that of nationals of that country.  Once the U.K. leaves (should it leave), its researchers would be harder to hire in E.U. member states than they are at present, and vice versa.  Additionally, the ability of U.K. students to study in E.U. member states (and vice versa) will likely be affected, even though U.K. universities have been quick to assure students from E.U. member states that they still have a place in their institutions.  Secondly, there are several research programs supported in whole or in part by E.U. agencies that provide funds for researchers and institutes in E.U. member states.  Again, so far only anecdotally, there has been reluctance to include U.K. researchers in future applications for these programs, and their eligibility to participate in these programs once the country leaves the Union would be at best dramatically reduced.

Yes, the U.K. would have additional money post-exit that it could use to cover the shortages in funding for research.  However, according to MP Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons, the U.K. has won a greater share of E.U. research funds than its contribution.  Given the chaotic state of the country’s political leadership (which may not stabilize once a successor is found for Prime Minister Cameron) and the government’s recent penchant for austerity, I’m skeptical that U.K. research would receive the same amount of research funding that it would have benefited from through the E.U.  MP Blackwood may be as skeptical, as she has called a committee inquiry on the subject that starts on Tuesday.

There is the potential to mitigate the disruptions coming for U.K. research.  The extensive relationships forged between U.K. and E.U. researchers, as well as between U.K. and E.U. policymakers (such as former Scotland and E.U. Chief Scientific Adviser Dame Anne Glover) could help preserve existing relationships and provide avenues by which the U.K. can argue for continued scientific collaboration with the Continent.

The current state of U.K. political leadership is such that it will be some time before a coherent plan for U.K. science emerges.  The two ministers with science in their portfolio, MPs George Freeman (life sciences) and Jo Johnson (universities and science) both supported remaining in the E.U.  What remains to be seen is to what extent the next Prime Minister will retain current ministers.  Should this new Prime Minister be one who supported exiting the E.U., they may not want to retain anyone who supported remaining.  With Jo Johnson also being the brother of Boris Johnson, who just left the race for party leader, that next Prime Minister has an extra reason to not retain him.  (Of course, the race for party leader has been sufficiently Machiavellian that a future PM may wish to keep one Johnson on for some kind of connection to the other.)

With all of this speculation, I think it worth noting that however the consequences of this referendum unfold, science, technology and the funding for them are not likely to be high on the list of concerns for most of the parties involved.  Success or failure in ensuring a healthy research relationship for the E.U. and the U.K. could depend on how well those very concerned about science and technology keep that in mind when making their case to those who aren’t.

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