Science after #Brexit needs action, not just aspiration
Fifteen months on from the EU referendum, the government will today set out its aspiration to continue contributing to EU science programmes. As the entire STEM community has repeatedly asked for clarity of direction, we can all be pleased about this. There is an overwhelming case for continuing to buy in to EU research. For example:
- The UK received €1.21bn from Horizon2020 in 2015, the highest amount received by any member state.
- We are also net beneficiaries from hosting the European Medicines Agency and Joint European Taurus (JET) fusion research based in Oxfordshire.
- International collaboration increases the impact and value of UK R&D. For example, UK papers with international co-authors have around 40% higher citation scores than those without.
But if the Government is serious about continued engagement, aspiration must be backed by effective action.
The UK’s financial contribution will probably at least need to match the benefit received. Alongside Horizon 2020, the UK benefits from other funding streams and European Regional Development Fund grants.
These commitments should not and will not be resolved through reallocation of existing science funding including that announced in the 2017 Budget. They will require significant investment of new money. The industrial strategy for the life sciences sector published in August made clear that it was necessary to increase R&D expenditure to around 2.6% of GDP compared with 1.7% currently.
In Prospect’s view government should take a holistic approach and ensure that higher public investment leverages in a much needed rise in private sector R&D.
But in addition to confirming funding, UK science needs the personal and organisational collaboration that programmes like Horizon 2020 bring. Relationships have already been disrupted as a result of Brexit uncertainty, with UK-based research frozen out of some new project bids and loss of lead partner status elsewhere. The perceptions of the European science community may not be shifted as easily as government would like to think.
142,000 EU nationals work in British science and technology and they continue to face pernicious uncertainty about their future status and security. Successful collaboration depends on sharing of expertise and that requires free movement of scientists and the technical experts they work with. Government must commit now to maintaining the position of EU nationals and their families. There is no doubt that without their contribution UK capacity and capability will suffer dramatically.
Against a background in which scientific influence is visibly waning under the current US administration, today’s position paper will be a watershed for our own political leaders. At stake is the UK’s ability to steer the future of science rather than leave that to others. Also at risk is our place in ‘Big Science’ mega-projects, relating to climate, space and energy, that are only possible at the international scale.
Aspiration is good but action is what counts. Prospect members are tired of waiting.