All of European science will be diminished by Brexit

11 May 2017 | Viewpoint
Try as they might, no one can see a bright side to Brexit, either for the UK or the EU27. The only course is damage limitation, agreed speakers at a debate ‘Brexit the scientific impact’

Brexit will have an impact on research funding, mobility of researchers and collaboration, which while it may be greater in the UK will also be bad for the remaining EU27.

UK researchers may no longer have access to EU R&D funding, but for the EU27 the pot will be smaller without the UK’s contribution; on mobility and collaboration, the UK has the most to lose, but since it is also the top destination, students and academics in the EU27 lose out too; when the UK leaves the EU, one of the main pillars supporting the European research area collapses.

The litany goes on. Among all the harmful consequences for science in Europe writ large, no one at the wide-ranging debate on the scientific impact of Brexit, held at the Royal Institution in London earlier this week, could suggest a single positive outcome.

In summary, managing the process will be an exercise in damage limitation on all sides. But while – regretfully – speakers say there is a need to engage, they are hamstrung because as yet it is not clear what the intentions of the UK government or the EU are for science in the negotiations.

“We need to move on from bitterness and anger, and come up with practical propositions,” said Alex Halliday, professor of geochemistry at Oxford University and vice president of the Royal Society.

Talking to colleagues in Europe there is “phenomenal support for UK science and scientists, and concern to make things work in the future,” Halliday said.

Channelling outrage

But the question remains: where to move on from the anger brought by Brexit? The debate illustrated that after months of struggling to adjust to the reality of Brexit and the fear that billions in EU funding and cherished research ties will be lost forever, scientists in the UK are still not sure how to react.

Channelling this outrage into any sort of political action has eluded everyone so far. Ole Petersen, a Danish national who is vice-president of Academia Europaea and a professor at Cardiff University, said, “Brexit is a disaster.” Researchers need to be jolted by the realisation that Brexit goes strongly against their interests, Petersen said, calling for public petitions and letter-writing campaigns.

“You have to come out and say the values of the current government are not your values. I don’t see why the major academic organisations are not saying it explicitly,” he said.

“I think we ought to be authentic. I don’t see why we have to try and understand those who voted no. Let’s just say it as we see it: Brexit is a bad idea,” Petersen said.

He was not alone in wishing for more bite from researchers. “Nissan didn’t have any problems lobbying the government on Brexit and getting what they wanted. Why do we?” said Jonathan Butterworth, professor of physics at the University College London, referring to the private support and assurances the UK government gave the Japanese carmaker over an investment in a new factory.

Butterworth said he is concerned that scientists are not making their case. “We need to state it loud and clear, not keep waiting for the government to say what it wants us to say.”

With formal exit talks set to begin next month in Brussels, organised opposition from the science world is not visible. Nor is science anywhere on the agenda as the UK heads into a general election on 8 June.

Some speakers complained the Royal Society is not doing enough to pressure the government, but Halliday insisted the argument for a good Brexit outcome for research is being put to the government.

“We are funding all kinds of research at the moment which looks at collaboration between the UK and the EU,” he said. The hope is that this will provide ammunition for politicians who can be relied upon to advocate for science. “We are there to provide the evidence base, not to set the policy,” Halliday said.

Mike Galsworthy, founder of the pressure group Scientists for EU, said negotiators need to hear a positive message from researchers. “They should know that science can be a white knight in the negotiations, of common interest to all parties around the table,” he said.

As chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (AEA), Roger Cashmore has already been on the receiving end of Brexit. The UK has said it will withdraw from Euratom, the civil nuclear energy body. At stake is the EU’s £60 million per annum investment in the Joint European Torus that AEA runs in Oxford.

Cashmore said he has been lobbying in Europe to make people aware of the need the keep the nuclear fission machine running. However he said, “This is a negotiation. We [in the UK] can decide what we want to do, but the EU27 have got to want what we want as well.”

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