Lines open Mon-Fri 08:30-19:00

Government aspirations for science after Brexit must be matched by effective action

Government aspirations for science after Brexit must be matched by effective action


Today’s Government position paper on science should be a watershed moment for the UK. Never has science and innovation been more important to our nation’s future. Even without Brexit, the changing nature of technology, an emerging new economy and global constraints on natural resources made science key to our future prosperity. With the UK now planning to leave the European Union, it becomes even more important.

At stake is the UK’s ability to steer the future of science rather than leave that to others. In particular against a background in which populist movements sneer at expertise, and where its cheerleader in the White House is visibly weakening scientific influence.  Also at risk is our place in ‘Big Science’ mega-projects, relating to climate, space and energy, that are only possible at the international scale.

On a superficial level there is much to welcome in ambitions to continue contributing to EU science programmes. The position paper makes clear the value of STEM to the UK and sets out an aspiration for continued UK engagement in key European projects like Horizon 2020 and the Joint European Taurus (JET) project.

As the entire STEM community has repeatedly asked for clarity of direction, we can all be pleased about this. There is an overwhelming case for continuing to participation in EU research:

  • The UK received €1.21 billion from Horizon 2020 in 2015, the highest amount received by any member state.
  • International collaboration increases the impact and value of UK R&D. For example, UK papers with international co-authors have around 40% higher citation scores than those without.

But as ever with Brexit, the devil is in the detail. If the Government is serious about continued engagement, however then this aspiration must be backed by effective action. We have set three tests that the Government needs to pass if it is to make a success of science and Brexit.

Science matters. As the largest union representing around 50,000 members in science, engineering and research it matters to our members as well.

Firstly, on collaboration. Britain is an amazing hub for science and research. Brexit makes keeping that ecosystem of innovation going much more difficult. Openness and collaboration shape our success in research whether it is in the UK or in EU-wide partnerships.

In addition to funding confirmation, the UK science needs the personal and organisational collaboration that programmes like Horizon 2020 bring. Relationships have already been disrupted as a result of Brexit uncertainty, with UK-based research frozen out of some new project bids and loss of lead partner status elsewhere. The perceptions of the European science community may not be so easily shifted as government would like to think.

The government must also think again on Euratom, putting aside its reservations about the ECJ in order to guarantee the UK’s role in nuclear collaboration and vital projects like JET. Why Ministers think that the UK can continue to be home to JET without a clear commitment on Euratom or funding is a mystery.

Second, funding matters when it comes to science. In reality it is likely that the UK’s financial contribution will need at least to match the benefit received. Alongside Horizon 2020, the UK benefits from other funding streams and European Regional Development Fund grants. There is also a Ministerial commitment to meeting costs arising from extending the JET project to 2020 when it is intended by government that the UK would no longer be part of Euratom, as a result of its position on the ECJ.

These commitments should not and will not be resolved through reallocation of existing science funding including that announced in the 2017 Budget. It will require significant investment of new money. The industrial strategy for the life sciences sector published in August made clear that it was necessary to increase R&D expenditure to around 2.6% of GDP compared with 1.7% currently.

In Prospect’s view government should take an approach that makes sure that higher public investment also leverages in a much-needed rise in private sector R&D.   

Finally, the scientific workforce is global and European in nature. Our members across iconic British research institutions, such as the British Antarctic Survey are a snapshot of the EU partnerships at the heart of British knowledge.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey, 142,000 EU nationals work in British science and technology. The figure will be higher when you factor in researchers in other sectors. The overwhelming experience since the referendum has been a sense that they are less welcome here and less valued in their contributions. The pernicious uncertainty about their future status and security is not helped by the leaks of immigration plans such as we saw earlier this week.

Successful collaboration depends on sharing of expertise and that requires free movement of scientists and the technical experts they work with.  Government must commit now to maintaining the position of EU nationals and their families. There is no doubt that without their contribution UK capacity and capability will suffer dramatically.  

Aspiration is good but action is what counts. And we still don’t have many answers.

Sue Ferns

Sue Ferns


There are currently no comments on this post.

You cannot currently add comments, please log in to add a comment.