A gloomy outlook for UK science after Brexit

By Stefano Gortana

14 August 2016


As the first (though possibly not the last) state to plan to leave the EU, the UK has waded into uncharted territory. It will come as no surprise that there are significant anxieties over how it will fare on its own in various spheres.

In particular, the UK science and research communities continue to express overwhelming opposition to leaving the EU, fearful of the consequences for staffing, funding and ultimately progress in health and science. The future is at best uncertain, but as the current UK government has committed to leaving the EU, there are already signs that UK science and research will struggle post-Brexit, at least until there is a clear strategy of how the UK will proceed.

The concerns are real

The UK science and research base fears losing the unique benefits of EU membership that have facilitated British research, development and discovery. These include the free movement of people that allows experts to work and travel freely within the EU, access to major EU funding opportunities, the related ease of collaboration with world-class institutions, and an influential leadership position in the direction of science and research in the region. These are in addition to more specific issues that will require attention, including how the UK will access the NHS data currently being stored, under long-term contracts, in facilities across Europe.

Does the UK need the EU?

About 64% of British scientific research is built on international collaborations underpinned by EU funding, which contribute nearly 1 in every 5 pounds spent on research in British universities. As almost half of the UK’s most productive scientific research involves collaboration with researchers outside the country, any limitations to the free movement of people or the UK’s current collaborative relationship with the EU with respect to science will have a detrimental impact.

The UK has also come to rely heavily on EU funding for science. The UK received €8.8bn in research funding between 2007 and 2013, in contrast to the €5.4bn it paid, and UK-based scientists have won about one-fifth of all EU grants from top-tier programmes run by the European Research Council, making the UK the leading nation in getting bids for science approved by the EU. It is also the largest recipient of loans to EU universities and research institutions from the European Investment Bank by far, having received more than €2.8bn since 2005. As the EU has dedicated more than €120bn of its 2015-2020 budget to research and innovation, not to mention its commitment to the Horizon 2020 programme, there is a compelling need to find a way for the UK to continue to benefit from EU funding and research opportunities.

What about the economy?

Much has been written about whether the UK will have more or less uncommitted funds as a consequence of Brexit savings, though prominent arguments from the referendum campaign were swiftly discredited.

Whatever the true situation, the argument can be made that EU funds have been used to prop up UK science in compensation for weak governmental support, where the UK spends only 1.7% of GDP on science and research, far below the OECD or USA averages of 2.4% and 2.8% respectively. It would follow that Brexit savings should not be seen as new funds to allocate, but rather as targeted funds to be spent on the new resulting shortfalls. Worryingly, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has already warned that EU research funds are not likely to be covered by future governments post-Brexit. 

EU funds have been used to prop up UK science in compensation for weak governmental support, where the UK spends only 1.7% of GDP on science and research, far below the OECD or USA averages of 2.4% and 2.8% respectively

Chancellor Philip Hammond did recently guarantee that “structural and investment funds projects signed before the Autumn Statement and Horizon research funding granted before we leave the EU will be guaranteed by the Treasury after we leave”. Such policies are certainly welcome measures to prop up UK businesses and universities in the interim but the issue of long-term and consistent support beyond this final round of EU funding persists.

Arguments for leaving the EU also focused on the allegedly excessive regulations or what Boris Johnson referred to as “the vast, growing and politically-driven empire of EU law” that the UK had been forced to accept. The fact that the 100 most expensive EU regulations were found to cost UK companies and the public sector £33.3 billion per year while simultaneously resulting in £58.6 billion in quantifiable benefits per year, is no longer important post-Brexit. The UK will have to negotiate new trade rules but the EU will certainly resist giving the UK a competitive advantage. This suggests there is a good chance the UK will be forced to continue to abide by EU law to a great extent, at least in real terms, while new rules will add more red tape to an already overly-bureaucratic relationship.

What about the free movement of people?

A central tenet of the Leave campaign was the need to curb immigration in order to tackle terrorism, but also to ensure more UK nationals can find work (presumably only within the UK). Presently, there are approximately 130,000 European nurses, doctors and support staff working in the UK, in addition to about 43,000 non-UK EU nationals working in British universities (about 15% of staff). Whether UK nationals can or will fill these roles remains to be seen, but it is undeniable that any limits to the free movement of people will only make it more difficult to attract the best talent to the UK. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence has already emerged of discrimination against UK nationals in European research projects and grant applications.

How the UK will restrict freedom of movement into the UK while maintaining its access to the free market is open to question. Some EU leaders insist that the free movement of people is non-negotiable while others suggest limits to migration may be possible but would preclude access to the single market. The UK will almost certainly be forced to compromise on some elements of its pro-Brexit platform. Only time will tell how the new government led by Theresa May will translate the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra into an international relationship that doesn’t hurt UK science and research. So far, it doesn’t look good.

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