Science and Brexit – now what?

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Not a lot of positives came from last year’s divisive EU referendum. However, one silver lining seems to be that science is being talked about by all parties, in no small part due to the efforts of fantastic groups like Scientists For EU. As a British PhD student starting to think about post-doctoral opportunities, I have a somewhat vested interest in ensuring that our national science capability is as strong as it possibly can be.

Brexit remains a serious threat to UK science, both directly due to the loss of EU funding (something that the UK had always been a big winner on) and indirectly through anti-immigration attitudes and policies that make attracting the best people more difficult. The best way to prevent this damage is to stay in the EU, but if Brexit does happen, we need to keep freedom of movement and membership of agencies like Euratom as a minimum. As a cautionary note, it’s worth pointing out that Switzerland lost full access to Horizon 2020 until they extended freedom of movement to Croatia. And Switzerland have the Large Hadron Collider.

However, Brexit isn’t the only issue facing British science right now, and it’s these lesser discussed issues that I’d like to focus on. The first is science funding. As a wealthy nation, our current R&D spending is embarrassingly low – 1.7% of GDP. That’s a long way behind the USA, EU, and OECD average, and it needs to be addressed (More in depth analysis here). There is some good news though: all 3 main parties have pledged to increase science funding: the Conservatives want 2.4% within 10 years, Labour want 3% by 2030, and we’ve pledged to double it (so 3.4%) in the ‘long term.’

So what now? The most obvious issue is to define what we actually mean by ‘long term.’ We also need to be clear on what we would expect from the medium term (i.e. the next 5-10 years.) We’ve definitely set out the right ambition, but at the moment it’s disappointingly vague. This is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, we need to make a clear commitment to funding ‘blue-skies’ research. The economic benefits of applied research are generally pretty obvious, but pure science for science’s sake – often termed ‘blue skies’ research – is just as vital. There would be no applied research without it, but its benefits are often less immediate or easily measurable. This can often make it a hard sell when competing for funding against projects with clear economic ‘deliverables,’ but blue-skies research is the lifeblood which keeps science running.

Now more than ever, we need to champion pure science to ensure it survives the turbulence caused by the Brexit vote. Vince has stressed the need to work with colleagues from other parties on areas of mutual concern, and this is a perfect example for an opportunity for cooperation. Science should not be politicised, and it is imperative that we work together to ensure that it isn’t reduced to a political football.

There’s a clear consensus that Brexit is bad for science, but at least it has put science in the spotlight. As a priority, we need to take advantage of this attention to safeguard the future of British research.

* Stephen Kelly is a newish member in Southampton.

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  • Peter Watson 7th Aug '17 - 5:08pm

    Obviously Brexit is an issue here, but apparently the need for more funding of R & D has built up in spite of our membership of the EU.
    The challenge though is how best to spend that money, whether it’s 1% or 3% of GDP. How much on research? How much on development? What technical areas? How to balance government and private funding?
    Does the party have a view on how to fund R & D or on a process for making such decisions?

  • This article reporting on the UK Party pledges notes:
    “The London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) calculates that to reach the 3% target, the government would have to commit an extra £6 billion (US$8 billion) per year to research funding, on top of its current £6 billion and an existing commitment to raise annual funds by £2 billion by 2020. That calculation assumes that for every pound spent by government on R&D, businesses will chip in twice as much — a 2:1 split that’s typical internationally, CaSE says.”

    These are substantial sums to reach a 3% target and rely on matched funding in a 1:2 split by the private sector.

    Funding of pure science (‘blue skies’ research) is often more difficult to match-fund then applied research and may require a more flexible approach.

  • Stephen Kelly 7th Aug '17 - 8:00pm

    Peter – That’s exactly my point. Brexit is the most obvious problem facing UK science right now, but it’s far from the only one. The EU referendum put science in the spotlight, so we (this is a very broad we, I mean all parties and not just the Lib Dems) should use this as an opportunity to address some of the other issues facing science as well.

    As for what we should fund, I don’t think we should answer that question too specifically. The UK Research Councils generally do a pretty good job of deciding how to allocate the funding that they receive from the government, and I’d rather keep it that way rather than go down the dangerous route of politicians’ pet projects. That said, there should be a clear commitment to support blue-skies funding in general, as this is not something that the private sector will naturally support on its own. (As Joe rightly points out.)

    Stimulating increased private investment is something the Lib Dems have a particularly good track record of delivering on (e.g. Catapult centres in the coalition years), and I’d say we’re broadly on track on that front. What I’d like to see alongside that is a very clear commitment to increase government spending on research funding, preferably with some clearer targets spelled out. We’re already strong on capital investment (i.e. spending on infrastructure), and that now needs to be coupled with more detailed funding commitments for the UK Research Councils.

  • Great article. Parties might say they want to increase R&D spending in manifestos, but will they actually do it when in Government? More likely take the augustinian approach – Lord give me more R&D spending, but not yet! Also, will the private sector be upping their R&D budgets with the uncertainty of Brexit?
    There is also an imbalance in between regions with R&D spending. London and the South East get more spending per capita than others (London gets 4 times more than the West Midlands in public R&D spending). R&D is great for the economies so why are we subsidising the wealthier area of the UK more than poorer regions?

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