8 September 2016

How can British science best cope with Brexit?


Almost a fortnight ago, this year’s GCSE results were released and saw the biggest ever year-on-year decline in the rate of students attaining top grades. The overall proportion of candidates achieving A* to C has declined from 69% to 66.9%. Of this, science and engineering subjects had the lowest rate of A* grades of all subjects offered.

These disappointing results are just one of the growing number of signals that warn of difficulties ahead for scientific research in Britain. Looking to higher education and beyond, Brexit may leave researchers deprived of funding, endangering opportunities for growth and innovation in the UK. Britain currently benefits from approximately £1.2 billion in funding each year from the Horizon 2020 project. This is part of the European Commission programme, amounting to €80 billion in total, which supports research and innovation as a driver of sustainable economic growth and job creation. It also views innovation as a means to tackle societal challenges such as climate change. Britain’s access to this vital funding is in jeopardy, and needs to be completely re-negotiated under Brexit.

The recently published Global Innovation Index 2016 ranks the UK in third place, recognising the pre-eminence of our science and technology industries. Britain is a global leader and has a significant comparative advantage in the defence and security sectors, along with life sciences and space travel. However, China and India have soared up several places from their 2015 rankings, and their rapid progress signals that countries leading global innovation may need to reassess their capabilities. The risks Brexit poses to these sectors may compromise our current position.

The Aftermath
Brexit will severely undermine continued British access to Horizon 2020. HM Treasury has pledged to underwrite UK Horizon projects that are granted before our exit, but there has been no clarification as to what will happen thereafter. A country does not need to be a member of the EU to attain Horizon funding, yet must still accept terms such as freedom of movement to be eligible. Switzerland blocked the free movement of Croatians in 2014 and is now considered a “third country” exempt from Horizon grants. Given the place of immigration as a focal point in negotiations to leave the EU, Britain may find itself in a similar state.

Decline for our science and technology industries will have the simultaneous effects of obstructing international collaboration and deterring the best and the brightest minds from coming to the UK. Joint ventures are too risky to embark upon in this climate of uncertainty, and British partners are presently considered a financial liability to major EU-funded research projects.

In the same way, Britain will also not appeal to individuals. A lack of well-funded programmes that acted as pull-factors and a nationwide rise in anti-immigrant hate crime by 57% since the referendum could repel non-UK scientists. A possible end to free movement, coupled with this xenophobia, would make the UK an unwelcoming place for foreign-born talent to settle further reinforcing the cycle of decline.

The Solution
‘Brexit means Brexit’ but in a letter to the Royal Society, Prime Minister Theresa May stated that her government would continue its commitment to science and research. That the Prime Minister recognises British expertise in these areas and the importance of this sector for economic growth, and has made this a priority in her new industrial strategy, is encouraging. There are real opportunities to make progress in spite of the negative ramifications of Brexit.

Ensuring continued success lies first and foremost in education. Improving standards in STEM subjects from the secondary school level, encouraging pupils to pursue studies in science and technology, and efforts to make teaching an attractive option for graduates of science and engineering to overcome recruitment problems in the profession are all necessary. Governmental programmes in India and China that focus on innovation ‘inputs’, most notably education, have enabled the rapid developments in their innovative capability. Evidence of this can be seen in improvements over a vast range of indicators, like the number of patents registered in recent years: the number of Chinese patents filed rose to 44.29 in the latest rankings from 29.0 in 2012. The engineers of the future, scientific breakthroughs, and tech start-ups will not materialise unless students can achieve excellence and realise their potential.

Secondly, a strong case must be made to protect funding. Significant attention needs to be given to scientific research in Brexit talks to see what collaboration may still be possible. The Treasury promise to underwrite grants is reassuring, but it remains to be seen what will happen upon once these basic commitments expire upon our departure from the EU. Between 2007 and 2013 Britain contributed €5.4 billion to EU research funds and got €8.8 billion in return. Making up for this shortfall would be critical were we no longer party to European Commission funding. Government funding for UK Research and Innovation, the voice for British research nationally and globally, stands at £6 billion per year and the latest figures on R&D funding from 2014 show an increase in spending to £11 billion per year. This funding was ring-fenced at times when other budgets were downsized, and investment must continue on this steady trajectory to sustain our record on innovation.

Assurances of financial support will sustain projects and collaboration for the short-term, but more needs to be done to foster relations with international partners. We must now proactively encourage individuals to come to Britain, in spite of the unwelcoming climate foreign nationals have recently experienced. Granting longer visas to highly-skilled migrants would enable them to feel secure in their livelihoods, and minimising the loss of talent that would ensue if free movement from the continent is curtailed.

Sharing knowledge and expertise enables scientific pursuits to thrive. This particular value, embodied in the Horizon 2020 project, will be crucial to executing the government’s industrial strategy and should remain despite the public’s choice to leave.

Olivia Creavin is a CapX contributor.