UK heading for second-class science deal

by Luke Lythgoe | 07.09.2017

The government’s latest Brexit paper half accepts that we’ll end with a worse deal on science than we currently have. This is a crying shame since we’re now a leader in science and research.

The government is right that scientific collaboration with the EU has been a huge success over the last few decades – with examples ranging from bringing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to market, building robots to help children manage their diabetes and developing reference epigenome maps for blood cells. The UK wants a “more ambitious and close partnership” than any the EU has so far forged with any country. The snag is that the best we can hope for after Brexit is second-class status in EU scientific collaboration.

The paper seems to be aiming for “associated country” status on Horizon 2020, the programme which funds much of the research and innovation across the EU. This would mean not having a formal vote on what research projects the programme backs. The government tries to put a brave face on this by saying it would allow the “same level of access” as EU member states and the opportunity to attend programme committees, thus providing “a degree of influence”. But there’s no hiding the loss.

We’ll also probably be worse off financially. The government hints that it would be prepared to make a financial contribution. No sum is given, but reports suggest the government is willing to pay £1 billion per year – based on the average amount UK institutions receive now. The snag is that we are currently a net beneficiary of the science funding slice of the EU budget – during the period 2007-2013 the UK contributed €5.4 billion to EU research and development, but received €8.8 billion in direct funding.

Meanwhile, the government again and again points to the close scientific collaboration Norway and Switzerland enjoy with the EU. But will the EU let us cherry-pick scientific cooperation without signing up to at least some other aspects of the EU’s single market? Both Norway and Switzerland accept free movement, make financial contributions to the EU’s poorer regions and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in some areas. The government’s paper doesn’t address these issues.

Finally, trade and science cannot be treated like separate issues. Even basic things like buying scientific equipment or products from other countries would become harder outside the customs union. Then there are rules on everything from data sharing to environmental pollutants used by high-tech industry, all of it wrapped up in single market membership. Outside of these frameworks, UK scientists and businesses would face a regulatory rift – something the paper entirely glosses over.

Meanwhile, our science base is already starting to hurt as a result of the referendum and the way the government has mishandled the aftermath. Talent is leaving the UK and our industry missing out on satellite contracts. None of this would be happening if the UK wasn’t hell-bent on quitting the EU.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “UK heading for second-class science deal”

  • This should not surprise anyone who experienced the brexit horde accepting that they were tired of experts. The stupidity of brexit cannot be explained otherwise that those voting for it took leave of their senses, so one cannot expect that they would be ruffled by seeing British educational expertise get damaged in any way.