Brexit and British Science: The Cliff Edge Starts to Crumble

Cliff edge
(Photo: Orin Zebest/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The UK science policy establishment has been remarkably sanguine in the face of its government’s plans for Brexit. Some of their public utterances would do justice to Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss in assuring the research community that it will all turn out all right in the end. Of course, the UK will continue to have a basis for accessing EU science funding. Scientists and scholars will continue to move as freely around Europe as international footballers. We cannot possibly question these assumptions or ask about Plan B.

There are, of course, many difficulties with this vision. Much of it resembles the wishful thinking of other sections of the UK policy elite, namely that the remaining EU countries will simply roll over and give the UK whatever it wants, regardless of their own national interests. The frequent statements by EU leaders that being Out can never be as good a deal as being In are simply not taken seriously.

Science funding looks particularly vulnerable to this position. There are good research universities outside the UK and a perception that the UK has been getting more than its share of funds while giving little back in terms of helping to raise standards in less developed EU national research systems. Both postdocs and professors have options to move to countries that are more welcoming. If UK immigration is to be tightly controlled, arguably EU countries will be less concerned with facilitating scientists than fruit pickers. Anyone can harvest Brussels sprouts on a freezing morning in Lincolnshire but governments in Eastern and Southern Europe might prefer to see their postdocs stay nearer to home or move to countries that are more reliable friends. Similarly, whatever is agreed in the negotiations, UK access to funding will depend on having partners who value the collaboration sufficiently to risk trying to sustain it. From my experience of peer review panels for earlier Framework programmes, it is, for example, clear that, whatever rules and policies state, hard questions are always asked about the value added by partners from outside the EU (unless, of course, the funding stream is specifically intended to promote collaboration with developing countries).

horizon-2020What is particularly striking in the UK is the failure to recognize the relevance of the evidence from the Swiss experience. After the Swiss referendum in February 2014, when the electorate voted to restrict free movement between their country and the EU, Switzerland’s rights to receive funding under Horizon2020 were downgraded. Although they could still participate in any project, this had, with certain exceptions, to be at the expense of their own government, rather than sharing the EU pot.

Despite the excellence of Swiss science, and their government’s willingness to make up the funding loss, Swiss participation fell off a cliff. Within one year, the overall participation rate halved, as did the share of income committed to Swiss research institutions, whether from the EU or their own government. Even more significantly, Swiss researchers were shut out from the key role of co-ordinating projects. Under the previous funding programme, 3.9 percent of projects had been co-ordinated from Switzerland: in the first round of Horizon2020, this collapsed to 0.3 percent. Co-ordination of an EU project is a mixed blessing because of the amount of administrative work involved. Nevertheless, it is a fair indication of the views of other partners, in terms of their willingness to work with, and trust, whoever takes on that role. In 2014-15, other EU countries were simply not prepared to collaborate in ways that made Swiss partners central. Data of this kind was certainly one element in persuading the Swiss government to find a way to fudge their referendum result in ways that would persuade the EU to end their suspension.

The UK is not yet in quite the same place as the Swiss. The outcome of the June 2016 referendum has still to be translated into a formal Article 50 notice to quit. This has not, though, prevented the European scientific community from making its own judgements and reflecting these in its funding decisions. Although full 2016 data are not yet in, it seems that UK researchers are now only co-ordinating about 15 percent of projects, compared with 20 per cent in 2014 and 2015. They have not been excluded from participation – this decline is partly offset by a sharp increase in the proportion of projects that have a UK partner. However, they are less centrally placed in the project networks. The cliff edge seems to be crumbling.

Will anybody care? It is striking that seven UK government departments have a vacancy for a chief scientist and the department responsible for negotiating Brexit thinks one is unnecessary. Sir Mark Walport, the current chief scientist and incoming chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, is rumored to be hostile to EU science funding and keen to pull back UK financial contributions under his own control. This would be consistent with his public record of favoring strong central planning in science, despite others’ concern that a loss of diversity may inhibit the funding of innovative work. EU Framework funding certainly had an irritating habit of recognizing good work in places other than those preferred by Research Councils or the Wellcome Trust.

Nevertheless, responsible science policy makers should be signalling to the community what Plan B for Brexit might actually look like. Is it right to encourage young people to embark on PhDs and postdocs in areas of science that the UK will not be able to support from its own resources? If the UK’s participation in vital networks is heading for decline, should we be encouraging bright STEM students to learn German and head across the Channel rather than asking them to settle for a second-rate future here?

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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