UK science research at Brexit crossroad

by Rachel Rowson

When the Brexit negotiations close, regardless of outcome, there will be a lot to consider for scientists and those involved in research and development (R&D) across the continent of Europe.

The most likely result remains that the UK will still be able to access key programmes, but will no longer do so from the privileged position of having helped to design them.  With the next European Union (EU) research framework soon due for re-negotiation, the big question will be whether the redesign produces a scientific landscape worth investing in for the UK and the global life sciences industry.   

For more than 30 years the EU has been defined by an ideological settlement between its member states.  Harmony was found between the re-distributive demands of newer, traditionally poorer, member states and the established powers with their more egalitarian stance.  The result of this political interplay is visible in the broadly liberal, pro-commerce stance of the Union – but it has also helped shape a great many of its most ambitious initiatives. 

One of the most obvious examples is the way science is funded.  In this area the UK has long been the great driver of the ‘excellence principle’ in EU science funding, whereby monies are allocated on the basis of scientific excellence and not geography or capacity gaps/needs.  If that changes and greater focus is put on equalising the capabilities of less advanced scientific centres across the Union, the consequences for future R&D investment in UK could be harsh.  The ripples would also be felt strongly in Ireland, Sweden and Germany – themselves strongly reliant on such investments.

While the election of Emmanuel Macron as the new President of France will likely help preserve the status quo approach to the bloc’s business regulation, the future for science is less clear.  Any move which detracts from the attractiveness of the EU as a destination for cutting-edge research will not sit well in an increasingly competitive R&D landscape.  

Work is already under way to reshape the EU’s scientific funding programme and the first forays into the Brexit process are due in the coming weeks.  Those looking to conduct science research across the continent would do well to watch both.