A full damage limitation plan should have been drawn up months agoby Philip Ball / April 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
The cross-party House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) has just published its report on “Brexit, science and innovation.” It is a dispiriting, sometimes shocking, and, in a characteristically British way, rather angry document. The government, it implies, is failing dismally to safeguard British science against the perils of exiting the European Union.
The report makes little effort to hide its scepticism about Brexit and the government’s handling of it so far. “Six months ago, the government published its ‘future partnership’ paper on collaboration on science and innovation,” it says,
“but the document does not contain a great deal of detail. Since then, a range of ministerial speeches have reaffirmed the importance of ensuring science does not suffer as a result of Brexit. However, clarity over future access to funding, association with regulatory bodies, and immigration policies is required in order to provide certainty.”
In committee report-speak, this is strong stuff. It is saying that the time for puffed-up rhetoric and “wait and see” promises is over. “We do not accept that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ in this context,” the report states. “We recommend that the government make drafting and negotiating a science and innovation agreement an urgent priority.”
That earlier “future partnership” document, “Collaboration on Science and Innovation,” published last September, inspired no confidence. Its formula was depressingly familiar, stressing all the benefits of UK-EU collaboration that are precisely what are being put at risk by Brexit. “It is the UK’s ambition to build on its uniquely close relationship with the EU, so that collaboration on science and innovation is not only maintained, but strengthened,” it declared. How nice that would be—to find that by leaving the EU, scientific collaboration can be made even better!
Exactly how, though, will that remarkable feat be achieved? Even the government’s Interim Chief Scientific Adviser, epidemiologist Chris Whitty, admitted that the paper was “high on aspiration and a bit light on detail.” It declared that “The UK would like to explore forging a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country.” Almost like, perhaps, the kind of partnership that exists between actual member states?
There was, in truth, no indication in the government’s September paper of how we would be doing anything but trying to claw back some remnants of the advantages the UK currently has from EU membership. A familiar story.
The STC report demands that the government now gets real. “With just one year remaining until Brexit, and a commonly-accepted aim of reaching a comprehensive Brexit deal by this autumn, the time for setting out broad aspirations has passed,” it says. “The government must now work quickly to secure a detailed agreement covering all of the issues important to science and innovation.”
One of the most pressing of these is the UK’s engagement in Horizon 2020, the largest EU platform for research and innovation, which has nearly €80bn of funding available over its seven-year course from 2014 to 2020, and its successor. The government certainly knows how vital participation in Horizon 2020 is, and has committed to underwrite bids for projects submitted to it while the UK is still a member of the EU.
But as New Scientist pointed out, things will be very different if we end up outside the scheme:
“After withdrawal, the best [the UK] can hope for is associate member status [of Horizon 2020]. This would give it the same access to funds as before, but no seat at the top table. That doesn’t look like a smart way to maintain, let alone strengthen, existing ties.”
While the UK is currently providing input to the drawing-up of the next framework to follow Horizon 2020, the government has hedged over any commitment to be a part of it, even as an “associated country.” Indeed, says the STC report, the government has “openly avoided” the issue.
“This uncertainty risks having a direct and imminent impact since, in some areas, funding bids for the successor programme will start to be developed in the coming weeks, and researchers and businesses need to know what the UK’s intentions are,” the report says. It recommends making a commitment to involvement in the next framework urgently, even though that might incur an entry fee.
Much damage has already been done by Brexit, some of it irreparable. Many science departments have lost valued researchers who are tired of their uncertain status, or simply fed up living in a country that now feels hostile to their presence. Andrew Mackenzie, Head of Policy and Communications for the UK Physiological Society, told the STC at its Brexit Science and Innovation Summit in February that “the reality is that the uncertainty is causing problems right now today, and our members tell us that people are not taking up job offers now.”
Michael Arthur, President and Provost of University College London, told the committee how stark the situation has become:
“We advertise a series of excellence fellowships, mainly in biomedical sciences. Each year we usually have over 100 applicants. On average, we would expect 30 per cent or so of those applicants to be from other European institutions. This year we dropped from 30 per cent to zero applications, something that quite shocked me.”
Even a cynic shouldn’t think that this brain-drain and brain-freeze is what most of the Brexiter politicians want. Rather, there is surely some political calculation here: to risk some loss of scientific expertise, or to be seen making concessions to foreigners? Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, put it bluntly at the summit in February. The government, he said, “cannot have one message for the extreme wing of their constituents and another message for the rest of the world. Everybody listens to everything… the government really need[s], constantly, to reiterate what their intentions are and to make sure that people realise that they will continue to be welcome in Britain.”
What they realise at the moment was spelt out by Estrella Luna Diez, president of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK. In two surveys of their members in the UK, and one in Spain, she said that “the clear result is that there is a stark decline in the attractiveness of the UK to Spanish people.”
And why, after all, would non-UK European scientists want to come and to stay? For all the bluster in the governmental paper about how wonderful UK science is and how the EU depends on it, it’s silly to suppose that good researchers couldn’t find posts as challenging and rewarding on the continent.
It’s not as if the government wasn’t warned. In November 2016 an earlier report from the STC, “Leaving the EU: Implications and opportunities for science and research,” made it plain that making the UK a congenial place to live and work was one of the most urgent issues for science and research communities in Brexit planning.
So far, the government has merely announced a doubling of the Exceptional Talent visas granted to immigrants “who show promise in technology, science, art and the creative industries,” raising the total to 2,000. But they’ll be spread across a very wide range of disciplines, and in any event, the STC report says, we need technicians as much as we need “the brightest and best.” An “EU-UK science and innovation ‘pact’ must encompass issues relating to ‘people,’” it concludes. “A pact that does not address this fully would be pointless.”
Another politically sensitive topic on the agenda is regulation. To what extent should the UK align its regulatory frameworks for science and innovation with those of the EU? What the government must accept is precisely what market fundamentalists deny: that clear and transparent regulation actually boosts efficiency and innovation (that’s why the UK is a leader in stem-cell science, for example). Uncertainties, of course, strangle it. But even if the UK wanted some kind of “associate membership” of EU regulatory agencies on such issues as chemicals and medicines, it’s not clear if the EU rules can permit that. If we need to align our bespoke regulations to theirs, we’d better get on with it.
An illustration of why that matters is offered by the proposed UK departure from Euratom, the pan-European community for nuclear-energy research. In its own description, Euratom “ensures the security of atomic energy supply within the framework of a centralised monitoring system.” This means not only sharing knowledge and expertise but adhering to a set of regulations for the exchange and transport of nuclear materials: not just fuels for reactors, but also, say, radioactive substances used in medicine. Of course, new bespoke rules could be drawn up—but not, for such a sensitive and potentially dangerous area, by March 2019. Yet without such arrangements, the British nuclear industry could find itself in a very difficult position indeed.
The government’s Future Partnership paper in September, however, couldn’t even bring itself to state explicitly the intention to leave Euratom, saying coyly that “The UK invoked Article 106(a) of the Treaty establishing the Euratom at the same time it invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.” So what will be done about the problems that will cause? Well, said the paper, “the UK will seek to build on its extensive history of working with EU partners on nuclear research.” Oh, that’s alright then.
The irony is that, as the STC report says, “Co-operation on science and innovation is widely regarded as a ‘win-win’ for both the UK and the EU. Securing an early agreement on science and innovation would set a positive tone for other elements of the negotiations.” So why this lack of urgency? The Science Minister Sam Gyimah was commendably candid in response to the committee’s questions. “ If it were left to me alone,” he said, “this would be one area on which we could come to an agreement very early in the process, but… [t]he timescale will be driven by cross-government decisions, rather than what I specifically want.”
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy with that. Gymiah would no doubt not want to put it this way, but the fact is that a government committed to Brexit is in an impossible position. The objective evidence makes it very clear that in science and technology, as in other sectors, withdrawal from the EU can only be an exercise in damage limitation. To explain the reluctance so far to get on with limiting that damage, one shouldn’t underestimate sheer incompetence as an explanatory factor. Under-resourcing is also likely. But tackling the problem first requires a facing up to reality: an acceptance of the potential harm Brexit will do. And there is good reason to believe that this kind of “negativity” would be political suicide within the current government.