23 November 2017

Brexit mustn’t mean an end to research collaboration with Europe

By Ed Whiting

“Brexit means Brexit” the Prime Minister has said again and again. And this week, if you are one of the 900 employees of the European Medicines Agency in Canary Wharf, which is now confirmed as moving to Amsterdam, Brexit feels very real indeed.

No matter how you spin it, the departure of the EMA from the UK, its home of around 20 years, is a big deal, and the end of British leadership of the regulation of the €220 billion medicines market. As the reality of Brexit starts to hit home, it’s time to step up the conversation about Britain’s future relationship with Europe when it comes to research and innovation.

Reassuringly the government has, also this week, committed to reaching an investment of 2.4 per cent of GDP in research and innovation. But the UK’s future success in research and innovation is not just about money. The wider environment for research is just as important. And how we cooperate across borders on research could not be more crucial. In 2015, over half of the UK’s research output was the result of an international collaboration. Each €1 invested into EU research programmes delivers returns of €11 for society, wherever in Europe you live, including in the UK.

We also need to maintain important links between innovative industries and trade. That includes UK access to the European medicines market, which makes up 25 per cent of global pharmaceutical trade total in comparison to UK’s 3 per cent.

This is an issue on which there is already reassuring consensus. In September, the UK Government published a science position paper that proposed “a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country”. This echoed the findings of Pascal Lamy, who was tasked by the European Commission to develop recommendations on the future of EU science funding. And when Wellcome invited fellow funders and research organisations from within EU as well as countries on the EU’s periphery – including Norway, Israel and Switzerland – to meet last month, they were clear that they wanted to see Britain engaged as closely as possible in European science and research following Brexit.

In many sectors, even when there is agreement, the conversation often turns to matters akin to settling the bill – the more one side pays the less the other does. But this misunderstands how science works. When it comes to the accumulation of knowledge it is impossible to over pay. We will never know enough about how our solar system works, how diseases are caused and how they may be cured, or how to harness green energy.

So we must come to an agreement on what the future of research will look like, in practical terms, after Brexit. To paint a more detailed picture of this deal, Wellcome, together with the Royal Society, has launched the Future Partnerships Project. Our aim is to turn positive words and joint ambitions about how the UK and EU might work together into ideas and suggestions about how it might work in practice. We’re asking individuals and organisations from across the UK and EU for their recommendations.

The good news is that we have a starting point. One vision that is particularly appealing is to build on the European Commission’s vision for a broad European Research Area – a group of countries within and outside the EU who would help to make Europe the place where the greatest global science and health problems could be solved, backed by a comprehensive deal on shared funding, movement, infrastructure and data regulations.

The window of opportunity for agreeing a deal is narrowing. And if we want those sat around the negotiating table in Brussels to deliver a Brexit that protects the future of international scientific collaboration, we need to show them the way.

Ed Whiting is Director of Policy and Chief of Staff at the Wellcome Trust