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The challenge is to keep science at the centre of Brexit talks

Science will influence many areas of the negotiations. Researchers must build alliances to make its voice heard, says Graeme Reid.

The most important feature of the government’s Brexit paper on science is that it exists at all. It lacks detail but that is not surprising in a document that is only one piece in a policy jigsaw—part of a wider picture that covers the Northern Ireland border, nuclear safeguards, judicial proceedings and more. Each position paper provides a bit of the picture without great depth.

The risk remains that science will be marginalised in negotiations dominated by immigration, trade and the divorce bill. Credit should go to universities and science minister Jo Johnson for keeping research in the headlines of Brexit negotiations—it cannot be easy.

Overall, the UK’s membership of the European Union has been characterised by squabbles, opt-outs and half-hearted commitments. Meanwhile, UK science has enjoyed a harmonious relationship with EU partners. Researchers have worked in a community of nations that shares facilities, enjoys a common framework for funding and collaboration, and enables free movement across borders.

The UK is a net financial contributor to the EU but a net recipient in science. The £1.5 billion in research funding coming in each year makes science one of the most financially significant aspects of the EU’s relationship with the UK, second only to agriculture. Some 18 per cent of the EU funding coming into the UK is for R&D.

Against that background, it’s easy to see why a survey of researchers in 2015 by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that 93 per cent of respondents said that EU membership benefited science and engineers.

Theresa May set out her commitment to science soon after moving to Downing Street. That has been confirmed in the Brexit white paper, the industrial strategy, the Conservative Party’s election manifesto and last year’s huge increase in research and innovation funding.

But support for science is at risk of becoming one-dimensional. Financial commitment and continued participation in research collaborations are essential. However, mixed messages and slow progress on immigration policy continue to erode confidence in the UK as an attractive place for a research career. 

In speech after speech, ministers have confirmed their desire to attract talented people from around the world. In July, the government announced the Rutherford Fund to seek out top researchers and attract them to this country.

Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by corrosive messages about net migration targets and border controls that, whatever their intent, undermine the government’s position on science, the economy, culture, trade, international diplomacy and more. Recent reports suggesting that the Home Office is taking a hard line on immigration policy send even more shivers through the science community.

Negotiations with Brussels are only one part of the Brexit process. The EU withdrawal bill gives a glimpse of the scale of legal and regulatory reform required as the UK absorbs decades of EU arrangements. 

Some of those changes will affect research directly. Even more will require scientific advice on regulatory provisions, stretching the capacity of government scientific advisers in areas such as food standards, environment, consumer protection and national security.

Having won a place in the Brexit negotiations, researchers must now resist any attempts to position science as a special interest group on the margins. I see four immediate connections that would help to embed science at the core of the government’s negotiating agenda.

First, researchers should improve their connections with the top-level negotiating team. Officials at the negotiating table need to be well informed, confident representatives of science interests, including any scientific dimensions in each strand of the negotiations.

This means that, second, science interests need to reach further into other strands of the negotiations. The relationship between immigration policy and the health of the research base is well documented. Scientific advice will also be an essential part of trade negotiations. The Department for International Trade’s search for a chief scientific adviser is, I suspect, only the beginning of greater demands for expertise. 

Third, UK researchers must continue to nurture alliances with science leaders in continental Europe. This will spread awareness of the importance of EU science across both sides of the Brexit negotiations.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a recognition of the distinctive impacts of Brexit across regions, industry, research institutions and academia. The government’s Brexit paper is written in generalised, high-level terms. That is understandable at this early stage, but far greater depth and texture will soon be needed.

Graeme Reid is chair of science and research policy at University College London and chairman of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight