EU referendum: UK science wakes up to new future

UK science will have to fight to
make sure it is not an after-thought as Britain renegotiates its relationship
with the EU, say research leaders.

The science establishment
expressed its “disappointment” on Friday with the referendum’s
outcome.

It had been in the
“remain” camp.

How will UK science be affected by Brexit?
The decision to leave the EU now
means new structures will have to be put in place if the science sector is to
continue to enjoy favourable access to the union’s programmes and funding.

Jo Johnson, the minister for
universities and science – an “in” supporter – was one of the first
to react.

He took to Twitter in the early
hours to say: “Big decision. Let’s make it work.”

Britain’s science sector has done
increasingly well out of the EU in recent years, receiving €8.8bn in research
funding in 2007-2013 versus the €5.4bn it paid in over the same period. And
UK-based scientists have won about a fifth of all the grants, in terms of
value, from the top-tier programmes run by the European Research Council.

This funding flow-back has been
described as being akin to having another Research Council to go with the seven
national bodies that presently distribute UK government monies.

To maintain access to the EU
stream, Britain will likely now have to get itself some kind of
“associated country” status, similar to the positions held by other
non-EU countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Israel.

Associated countries pay a GDP
membership fee to “join the club”, after which, in principle, their
scientists can bid for support in the same way as those from full EU member
states.

But the exact arrangements will
need to be worked out, and are going to depend on wider economic and political
factors.

Switzerland, for example, only
has “partial” associated status currently because it is not allowing
Croatian citizens free access to its labour market.

And having free movement to work
collaboratively is central to the way modern science is done.

Scientists for Britain is the
group of researchers that has most prominently lobbied for Brexit.

It has argued that the policies
of “political union” – and the regulations that flow from Brussels –
are not a prerequisite for the UK playing a full role in European scientific
collaborations.

The UK can survive and thrive
outside full union membership, it contends.

And on Friday, its spokesman Dr
Lee Upcraft said he was confident a new settlement would be found to maintain
UK involvement in EU programmes and by extension the country’s world-leading
position in European and global science.

But he also urged the research
establishment to hold government to account on 
national funding.

He echoed a recent complaint from
Stephen Hawking, that “we’ve become reliant on EU funding. We get back a
little more than we put in, and associated status will need to address this.
But the other thing we need to do, and what UK academia needs to do, is get
much better at lobbying government.”

EU funding had masked a
stagnation in national support, he told BBC News.

Dr Sarah Main from the neutral
Campaign for Science and Engineering said there would inevitably be a big
uncertainty factor going forward – which comes on top of sector changes already
being pushed through parliament in the form of the Higher Education and
Research bill (this will bring the seven Research Councils into a single body).

“In the run-up to the
referendum, people talked a lot about associated status,” she said.
“To what extent the EU will make a clear path to enable the UK to obtain
associated status and join science programmes back in the EU, I think will be
driven by the politics.

“You have to remember that
every associated country that people have quoted in the arguments up till now –
none was previously a member of the EU that then exited. So, it won’t
necessarily be straightforward, but it would be welcome because we do want to
compete in EU competitive funding streams, and as far as possible influence EU
regulations, markets and the conditions for doing science and the training of
scientists.”

Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, the
president of the Royal Society, agreed with Dr Main that ministers must not
lose sight of science as they renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU.

“In the upcoming
negotiations, we must make sure that research, which is the bedrock of a
sustainable economy, is not short-changed, and the government ensures that the
overall funding level of science is maintained,” he said in a statement.

Areas that should not be affected
directly by the Brexit vote include the big intergovernmental research
organisations.

The likes of the European Space
agency; the European Southern Observatory, which operates major telescopes; and
Cern, which runs the Large Hadron Collider, the largest cryogenic facility in
the world at liquid helium temperature, are all separate legal entities to the
EU.

However, EU money has
increasingly been directed at some of their work. For example, Brussels is now
the largest single contributor to Esa’s budget, using the agency to procure the
Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus/Sentinel Earth
observation constellation of satellites.

Britain’s science-related
companies working in these kinds of fields will want re-assurance that a
renegotiated future does not turn into a competitive disadvantage.

Patrick Wood is the managing
director of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, which assembles the navigation
payloads for every Galileo spacecraft.

He told BBC News on Friday:
“We are days away from submitting the proposal for the next follow-on
order, to complete the Galileo constellation, and we will continue to work hard
with our supply chain to do this.

“I would look for our UK
politicians to unite together to continue to support this flagship European
project containing key UK technology, knowhow and to help protect jobs here in
the UK.”

Likewise, the chair of the House
of Commons Science and Technology committee, Nicola Blackwood MP, wanted to
highlight the care now needed to ensure the commercial science sector was
properly supported.

“My committee’s recent
report into EU regulation of the life sciences pointed out that this sector
alone comprises almost 5,000 companies employing 200,000 people in the UK,
generating an annual turnover of £60bn. The Science and Technology Committee
will want, in the coming weeks and months, to look at the consequences of this
vote for British science,” she said.

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Posted on July 6, 2016, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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