Brexit: The potential impact on UK science

Modern science, perhaps more than any other sphere, benefits from open, interconnected networks of knowledge and of people. We continue to pool larger subject samples, to share more data, and to seek the expertise of specialists across a veritable pick 'n' mix of labs.

More and more, the response to this trend has been to double down. Over 50% of UK papers are now internationally co-authored, with the majority of these collaborations involving partners from within the EU. This has allowed the nation’s research paper productivity to maintain a strong lead over that of the US, despite the latter trumping when it comes to the impact of domestic papers.[1] Science is thus best streamlined when borders are kept to a minimum, and it is here that EU money continues to be king, though not for the most obvious of reasons.

The State of Modern Funding

EU funding made up 10% of the UK’s public science spending from 2007-2014, with university research budgets citing a higher average of 16%.[2] These figures prove all the more revealing when divvied into specific research areas. The Forestry Science sphere receives 53% of its competitive funding from the EU, for example, and Evolutionary Biologists and Nanotechnologists report figures upwards of 60%.[3] Much is made of the ‘blank cheque’ that the UK – a net contributor to the EU – will receive upon leaving the Union as a means to keep up this spending. Utilising this money for modern science is not so simple, however. 

Though it might sound like madness to the team that is one grant away from the discovery of a ground-breaking new nano-material, not all big pots of money are created equal. Where individual governments must regulate how to fund international collaborations, the EU is essentially an international free for all, with funding being based entirely on the merit of the proposal at hand. This non-partisanship works to stamp out the bureaucratic minefield that can await a team seeking funding from its three, four or five nations of origin – a scenario that is becoming all the more common.

which pools together the proposals of experts in member states to conceive new scientific endeavours. These efforts are further backed up through such initiatives as the Unitary EU Patent System, which looks set to unify aspects of the med-tech, biotech and pharmaceutical industries across the continent.

Still, many EU programmes remain open to non-member states, with initiatives like Horizon 2020 proving invaluable in the face of economic stress. A total of 15 non-members are able to fully participate in H2020, with Switzerland’s access being limited to that of a ‘third party’ following the government’s implementation of immigration quotas.[4] Membership or non-membership is not the issue at hand here, but Switzerland nonetheless acts as proof of the EU’s tendency to flex its muscles when a nation attempts to ‘pick and choose’ its involvement with the Union.

Finding a Mutual Balance

It remains to be seen how the EU would handle a Swiss-style scenario with a nation as crucial to European infrastructure as the UK. With no such rulings on the horizon, however, a truly scientifically invested, post-Brexit UK would do best to capitalise on open EU projects. Some government initiatives already work to ease this process. For instance, the potential bar on immigrants earning under £35,000 exempts certain PhD-level scientists and researchers.

The UK might also look to build in areas where the EU has historically lagged behind. Europe is relatively stagnant in the Research and Development (R&D) sector for example, with only Volkswagen and Daimler making the top 10 R&D companies in 2014.[5] The near-total lack of EU influence in the American-dominated internet sphere should also be considered. Indeed, the UK continues to be the US’s most immediate link to research teams across Europe, and this play of powers will be a major factor on Britain’s leave, in and of itself.

The ball, then, is not in any single court. The UK continues to punch above its weight in the European scientific community, and whilst relations are strained, the continent’s technological relevance will continue to be weighed up by more distant powers. Inversely, the UK’s continued scientific expertise is itself ever-more reliant on the free flow of research teams and international funding projects.

Though a mutually beneficial deal would be best for all, the unique combination of the UK’s renowned scientific status and the uncertain terms of its leave continue to muddy the waters. What is certain is that minimising the nation’s contribution to the scientific sector, risks setting science on the continent back – be it immediately, or in the years to come.








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28th July

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