26 Jun 2016   |   Viewpoint

What’s next? 5 Brexit lessons for European research

Focus on bridge-building, open the science cloud, clarify the rules – these are among the steps that the EU should now take to turn the UK’s departure from disaster to opportunity

The really big policy changes in Europe always come at times of crisis. The realm of science and technology is no exception.

My first encounter with this rule came 32 years ago, when I was a young American journalist visiting Brussels to write about some European efforts to subsidise computer and telecoms R&D. Then as now, Europeans were panicking over the dominance of US technology. Then as now, geopolitical chaos was ripping across all policy areas: The US Star Wars programme, the threat of nuclear annihilation, a continent with its social fabric torn by a lost decade of economic decline.

My interview was with Michel Carpentier, a director-general in the Commission. He was, with Belgian Commissioner Étienne Davignon, the architect of this technology initiative – and he was the very definition of wily. We talked cordially for nearly an hour, and I don’t think I learned a single thing I hadn’t known already. I left with a story (thanks to his aides who explained what he hadn’t) and a suspicion that these programmes were just political games. Little did I know that, within a decade of that meeting, I would be seeing mobile phones developed in Europe on the streets of Manhattan.

Today we face another turbulent moment in European history, with the UK setting a course to leave the European Union. It’s easy to get depressed about this: Now living in Brussels, I spent the post-Brexit weekend in a series of wakes with friends mourning the death of their dreams of a united Europe. (For all its bureaucratic frustrations, this is a city of dreamers.)

But now it’s time to move on – and, as Carpentier and Davignon did before, make this an opportunity to use science and technology to improve Europe. This requires strong and far-sighted work, starting now, by Commission and member-state leaders with the most at stake.

Naturally, I have some views on what they should do (read on, please.) But first: Why, at such a moment of political cataclysm, would one think about the little world of research, innovation and education?

In part, these policy areas matter because they are the strongest and least controversial tools remaining in the EU toolkit to repair the Brexit damage and prevent a further splintering of Europe. These programmes are, for the most part, machines that get people from different countries moving, talking and working together (even Brits). They are also among the most popular: opinion polls have long shown the appeal of the Erasmus student-exchange programme to millions of students, and their families. And they are all about hope. While we may argue today about NHS budgets or clinical trials (surely the most unexpected issue to have arisen during the Brexit debate), nobody doubts the importance of training new doctors or finding new cures.

But let’s get to the point: What is to be done?

  1. The Commission needs to speak up, now. We are entering at least a year of political turmoil; Britain is going to be internally riven for months to come, and quite unable to say what it wants from the rest of Europe. Already, this uncertainty can be read in that part of Twittersphere inhabited by researchers, students, faculty and engineers across the EU. Will British grantees already getting Horizon 2020 money have it yanked back? Should I, an Italian researcher, drop my British partners from the grant application I was about to file? The answers are pretty simple: for existing projects, and for new projects under the current 2016/17 work programme of Horizon 2020, there seems no legal reason for any alarm; the UK is still ‘in.’ But top Commission officials should be saying this now, calming the waters. And they should be appearing publicly now and into the summer. A big opportunity comes next month, when Europe’s biennial science festival, ESOF, opens in – by a twist of fate – Manchester.
  2. Clarify the UK’s status in the future of Horizon 2020. Planning for really big R&I projects begins at least a few years in advance, so many potential partnerships under the 2018/20 work programme are already in discussion. All of this fruitful dialogue will stop dead – at least if there was to have been a significant UK role – unless the Commission clarifies the rules now. My own suggestion is that the remaining EU member-states, however vindictive they may want to be to Britain generally, should in this policy area show magnanimous self-interest. At the very least, they should declare now that any Horizon 2020 projects with UK partners or coordinators will remain eligible for normal funding if they are proposed before Brexit actually takes place in 2018 or 2019. The EU needs Britain’s strong universities at least as much as those universities need EU funding.
  3. Start from scratch in planning the next big R&I effort, Framework Programme 9. All the usual ideas - pet themes bubbling through the bureaucracy for years, and a tidy structure of three “pillars” of excellent science, industrial R&D and grand challenges. – need rethinking. The budget will be smaller without the UK; so the EU will have to do less, not just spread the money more thinly. Since Carpentier’s day, the Commission’s R&I budgets have been on a one-way escalator uphill. Along the way, they evolved from a relatively modest R&D subsidy for seven ICT companies (Bull, Siemens, Philips, Ericsson, Alcatel, ICL, Olivetti) into a massive income redistribution system for universities and public labs and technology development organisations across the EU; the industrial subsidies remained, but have tilted more towards small than large companies. Now, perhaps, these income-transfer functions should move from research policy to regional-development, industrial and education programmes; these programmes should have narrower goals to build scientific, technical and educational capacities in the poorer parts of Europe, rather than create roads to nowhere or subsidies for tourist hotels. At the same time, perhaps research and innovation programmes should narrow to ‘excellence’ – supporting only those researchers and innovators who can really deliver scientific breakthroughs, or create new markets and industries.
  4. Shift the R&I focus to bridging borders. With Britain going, the EU will lose its top scientific power (as measured by science citations, university rankings and other yardsticks.) It is also losing top-ranked Switzerland, due to that country’s own quarrels with the EU. At the same time, the EU single market will shrink without Britain. That means the cutting edge of R&I policy must shift from internal development to broadening opportunities – creating more bridges to neighbours from Iceland to Egypt. That suggests a new, expanded role for networking programmes. For instance, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, with its massive cross-border networks, could be reinvented and de-bureaucratised. Older programmes like Eureka and COST, that already reach beyond the EU, take new importance. And virtual networking, such as Commissioner Moedas’ proposed Open Science Cloud, moves to the centre of EU policy. For the EU to continue benefiting from the UK’s science strength, it’s going to need online tools for researchers in Bologna to stay in touch with those in Cambridge or Zurich. And the diplomatic dividend of better engaging researchers and engineers – from Moscow to Teheran – could be greater peace for all.
  5. Repair the relationship between science and society.  One of the most laughable moments of the UK Brexit debate was the former education minister declaring himself sick of listening to experts. Of course, Michael Gove’s slap at economists also hits at scientists and educators everywhere; the Brexit vote dramatized the class hostility between educated and uneducated across the developed world today. Now, we risk sliding into the kind of destructive demagoguery that Plato and Aristotle warned against, and that led to Europe’s last great war. Our only bulwark against that is science and education – the one to create knowledge, the other to spread it. For at least a decade, the EU has dabbled in various efforts at science communication or citizen science - all rather small, well-meaning and ineffectual. Now it must become serious, with bigger budgets, professional educators and communicators, and coordinated policies across the EU.
This is, for me, the biggest lesson of Brexit: we need an electorate schooled in logical thinking, comfortable with complexity, and open to new ideas. That is a role for science and education policy working together, around the world.

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