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Matt Ridley: ‘EU regulation is cautious and burdensome’

A growing number of scientists are starting to see how Brexit might benefit innovation in the UK, says Matt Ridley.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union was unpopular with most scientists. They worried that the UK would lose access to funding programmes and collaborations,  and that European talent might stop coming to Britain.

In vain did people like me argue that 16 non-EU nations already participate in Horizon 2020 and that science is a global rather than a regional activity.

But now that Brexit is happening, more scientists are starting to consider the potential opportunities. Writing in the Financial Times last year, John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, contrasted Britain’s relatively liberal regulatory environment with the EU’s “record of deep regulatory conservatism”.

Michael Rawlins, head of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that we might do some things better outside the EU: “For example, clinical trials in some respects are still overregulated.”

Speaking at an event in November 2016 organised by the Foundation for Science and Technology, Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: “If the UK could adopt a lighter-touch, risk-based and speedy regulatory environment—as distinct from the heavy hand of Brussels—it could find a real competitive advantage.” Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan told the same meeting, “The UK potentially has great advantages in being able to develop its own regulatory position in new areas where ethics, liability and technology intersect.”

It is in the application and commercialisation of breakthroughs that the UK stands to benefit most from Brexit. European regulation of research and innovation is cautious and burdensome.

On reproductive technologies, for example, Britain has generally taken a more libertarian approach than its continental neighbours. The first test-tube baby Louise Brown, Dolly the sheep and mitochondrial replacement therapy were all born in Britain.

That said, Brussels has never held back such technologies in the UK. Genetically modified organisms are a different matter. GM mosquitoes developed in the UK are being released in Brazil to combat dengue and zika. Oxitec, the company that developed them, said that it had not sought permission to release GM diamondback moths in the UK because of what Nature has called Europe’s regulatory paralysis.

The newer technique of gene editing shows huge promise for medicine and conservation. The United States has ruled that it does not need to be treated as genetic modification because it involves the introduction of no new DNA. The EU has, incredibly, asked member states to avoid making a decision for two years.

Unlike the US, the EU has a hazard-based approach to regulation: it measures toxicity without considering exposure and ignores the risks of not innovating. This is why it is in Europe that environmental activists are trying to get glyphosate herbicide banned, even though dose for dose it is no more carcinogenic than coffee.

Britain has more top universities than any other European country and more Nobel prizes per head than any country except Sweden. It is connected to the world by culture, history and the English language.

In the coming decades it will be collaborations and exchanges of talent with Asia, the Americas and Africa as much as Europe that determine Britain’s opportunities in science. If we get this right, nowhere has such a good chance of leading in science as the UK.

Matt Ridley is a newspaper columnist, science writer and member of the House of Lords.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight‘s 500th issue, guest edited by Andre Geim