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Brexit and research: goodbye EU money and colleagues?



8 September 2016 – A commentary by the previous EMBO Director Frank Gannon, published in EMBO Reports.


Frankly, I am not surprised by the British voters' decision to leave the EU. If you ask a nation or community “Do you want to control your own destiny or let pesky outsiders decide things for you?”, there can be only one answer to this simplistic question. To understand the details of leaving and to consider the alternatives would require a thorough debate and not just sound bites. But many years of anti-EU propaganda and jingoism fused into a simple choice to the person on the street. In addition, Brussels is an easy target and it is political expediency to imply that this “foreign body” imposes its rules. Just as it is easy to “blame the committee” when some necessary but unpopular decisions are announced, “Europe” was the shield for introducing many decisions that help consumers, ensure better fiscal discipline or for collective approaches to climate change. Being Irish, I also saw many positive societal changes not just in my country, but all across the continent, thanks to the “outside body” in Brussels. And yet, the trend for the past few years has been to vote against the status quo. The Brexit vote, the Austrian presidential election, the rise of new right- and left-wing parties in Holland, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and the success of Donald Trump in the USA: the voters will no longer buy the same-old, same-old. [...]


There is no doubt that many universities, research institutes and scientists in the UK are top class and that research is well funded. The life sciences in particular are supported by two research councils and major charities such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK. Of course, scientists never have as much funding as they have good ideas, but our colleagues in the UK are doing fairly well. Major pharmaceutical companies are based in the UK owing to the large pool of talented scientists—and because of the favourable tax offerings and because (say it quietly) it provides an English-speaking entry point to the EU market. Research in the UK benefits from great leaders and institutions, is well organised and productive, and demonstrates its social and economic impact.


Most of those factors will not change, so all is good then for a Brexited UK? It is hard to be sure how post-Brexit discussions will affect British science. In the extreme case, it means Britain slamming the door and becoming a EU-free country: no more complex applications and rules, no more signing time sheets, and all the other bureaucratic annoyances, but, also, no more money from the collective purse. That will mean a loss for many laboratories and researchers as the EU has become a major source of research funding for British scientists. The leading British laboratories did not partake much in the earlier Framework programmes, but, with time, UK scientists became enthusiastic and important participants. It is estimated that 16% of the research funding for universities in the UK come from the EU purse. Similarly, the UK government first opposed the idea of an European Research Council (ERC), which scientists from all over Europe were lobbying for. The argument that more competition would raise the standards throughout the continent was not selling in the UK with its top-class research. However, the UK eventually came on board to support the creation of the ERC, presumably because Lord Sainsbury, then minister of research, realised that laboratories in the UK would be the major beneficiaries. Indeed, Britain has been the most successful country in attracting ERC funds since 2007: 636 grants were awarded compared to 441 grants in Germany, which ranks second place despite the fact that it has a larger population and invests more into research. This means 636 laboratories were able to hire the best postdocs and perform the most expensive, and hence most thorough experiments, while colleagues with less resources elsewhere fell behind. A 16% cut will hurt. Of course, the UK could increase its national funding by using money it once transferred to the EU, but that is an unlikely outcome. [...]


We have witnessed the power of the electorate. It cannot be ignored. We have to move on from wishful thinking that it will be business as usual and work to minimise the damage that could result, at least with regard to research. What happens in laboratories, wherever they are located, remains a global enterprise, and facilitating the continuation of that is necessary for the benefits to flow from research to mankind.



Commentary by Frank Gannon DOI 10.15252/embr.201643057 | Published online 27.07.2016 Abridged version reprinted with kind permission from EMBO Press


What is the meaning of Brexit?


A commentary by Stephen Curry, also published in EMBO Reports.


In the UK referendum on 23 June 2016 the British electorate delivered a majority vote in favour of leaving the EU. The margin was small—52 to 48%—but the result was clear. Since then, nothing has been clear.


The roiling waters of UK politics have delivered a new Prime Minister, Theresa May, and a new conservative government, but the flow of events remains turbulent. Amid the ongoing confusion over exactly how the referendum result will reconfigure Britain's relationship with the EU—which looks likely to stretch well beyond 2017—it is difficult to judge the impact on the future of UK and European science. The PM's announcement that “Brexit means Brexit” may have relieved the leavers in her party, but has done little to reassure anyone else. Her new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is confident that a “balance can be struck” between access to the single market and freedom of movement, but has yet to win the confidence of Paris or Berlin. Boris's soberer younger brother, Jo Johnson, has been re-appointed as Minister for Universities and Science, providing a degree of continuity. He has made reassuring noises in the aftermath of the referendum, but his refusal to answer questions on Brexit at the recent ESOF 2016 meeting in Manchester was a disappointment.


During the referendum campaign, the pro-Brexit lobby group Scientists for Britain confidently asserted the UK could enjoy full access to the EU research ecosystem as an associated state rather than a full member, just like Norway or Switzerland. Unfortunately, this is as fanciful as Johnson's “pro having my cake and pro eating it” policy on the EU. It overlooks the crucial fact that the Norwegians and Swiss have access only by adhering to EU rules on freedom of movement. Switzerland will lose these privileges if it does not reverse a 2014 vote to limit mass immigration by the end of this year 1. Nor should it be forgotten that Norway and Switzerland also have to pay the same contributions as EU members, yet have no say on EU research policy. Britain can hardly expect to play by different rules.


And nor is it likely to be able to sell freedom of movement pledges to the UK electorate, since immigration was such a hot topic in the referendum. Research by the Resolution Foundation 2 showed that it was an especially influential issue among voters in regions where immigration has surged in recent years even if the size of the local immigrant population remained low. It matters little that there is no evidence that immigration from the EU or elsewhere has taken jobs—the UK currently has more or less full employment—or significantly depressed wages 3. [...]


The UK scientific community has to make its case not just to politicians but to the public at large. We should try to avoid charges of elitism, or of being out of tune with post-referendum political realities. We need to be aware that many other employment sectors will want to make their own arguments for worker mobility. In reaching out to the public, we should be sensitive to the possibility of coming across as money-grubbing and self-serving. [...]


This will be a difficult undertaking—though it is already partly in train through the open science agenda—but for the sake of science and for the sake of society, we have to try. Because the referendum result has taken the UK and the EU into entirely uncharted territory, and the shape of the new settlement is still in play.




1 https://www.sbfi.admin.ch/sbfi/en/home/topics/swiss-international-cooperation-in-research-and-innovation/european-union-framework-programmes-for-research/horizon-2020-_-the-european-unions-framework-programme-for-resea/swiss-transitional-measures-for-horizon-2020/switzerland_s-status-in-horizon-2020.html

2 http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/blog/why-did-we-vote-to-leave-what-an-analysis-of-place-can-tell-us-about-brexit/

3 https://fullfact.org/immigration/immigration-and-jobs-labour-market-effects-immigration/



Commentary by Stephen Curry

DOI 10.15252/embr.201643113 | Published online 04.08.2016 Abridged and edited version reprinted with kind permission from EMBO Press


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