What is striking about Brexit in general and its impact on science in particular is how it will eventually be judged as pointless. Considerable energy is going to be wasted on getting where we already are with no apparent benefit.
For most scientists, Brexit is seen as a catastrophe. It is predicted to harm exchanges and collaborations between scientists on either side of the channel, to block us from accessing EU funding, to cause irreparable damage to the standing of our universities, and finally, to make it less attractive for talented researchers to move to the UK. Others, on the pro-Brexit side, see opportunities in unleashing the research and innovation potential of the UK, free of the regulatory constraints imposed by the EU.
However, there are arguments against all of these assertions, whether by “remainers” or “leavers”.
Take first the predicted damage to the standing of our universities. I don’t believe for a minute this will be the case. Our universities continue to deliver a first-class education based on world-class research. Neither are likely to be affected by Brexit. There has been a slight increase in efflux of UK-based academics since 2016 but nowhere near the predicted exodus. Astonishingly, the UK has remained a remarkable place to do research, particularly in the biomedical field where the Wellcome Trust has been and continues to be a very large player. Even government funding has roughly been maintained to pre-austerity levels minus inflation, a far cry from the 40% reduction that all other departments and local authorities have had to endure. Overall, successive Tory or Tory-LibDem coalition governments since the banking crisis have been supportive of research. University-based research in the UK continues and will continue to be attractive.
At some point, it was feared that we might no longer be able to attract talented researchers from abroad. This is not the case so far. The UK continues to attract young, talented, postdocs, students and PIs. For students and postdocs, being exposed to English-based training is essential. English is the language of science, and therefore mastering the language is essential. Anyone in the non-English speaking world of science needs to think, write, and speak in English and there is no better way to do this than studying in an Anglo-Saxon country. The UK with its major universities and world-class research is supremely positioned to play this role and will continue to do so, Brexit or not. Moreover, at PI level, the UK will continue to attract the best and the brightest. There is a simple reason for that – the same reason that took me from France to the UK to conduct my research: the UK and the US are seen as Eldorado for young, ambitious scientists, places where they can obtain funding, set up their own lab, and have an independent career early in their lives (typically in their mid-30s) without having to work for decades under a French ‘Patron’ in France or a ‘Professor/Director’ in Germany, to give two examples. Young continental European scientists may fear Brexit, but they may have greater fear of returning to their countries where funding is difficult to obtain and where they will live under bureaucratic and administrative constraints that the UK or the US don’t have.
The loss of ERC funding is going to be a definitive blow to UK research. The UK has had a lion share of ERC funding, due to its high-level science, its abundant production of scientific literature, and also (a fact rarely acknowledged), the fluent mastery of the English language that makes for grant proposals that are highly readable. But I do not believe that the EU will block us from accessing ERC funds, at least not for very long. I believe it is in the EU’s interest to admit back UK scientists within the ERC. UK-based scientists are highly productive and, therefore, in order to maintain value for money, the ERC will want us back. Hopefully, the British government will also be willing to cooperate and contribute. There are obvious benefits for the UK to continue to have an open research base and joint funding with the EU. As for the EU, it is in its DNA to seek compromise (witness the 11th hour deals that we have come to get used to over the years at EU summits): I think the UK will find the EU ready to mend broken links and receptive to imaginative ways to forge joint programmes that work around the UK government’s suspicion of anything “EU”.
Finally, it is unlikely that exiting the EU will unleash the UK’s innovation potential. That’s because it is already unleashed. The fact is that EU has never been a brake on innovation. You only have to walk around Cambridge, Oxford and Berlin (to name only three places) to see innovation thriving in the EU, leading to wonderful discoveries and applications, providing the basis for a thriving private sector in science and technology. Will we be better off outside the regulatory environment of the EU? Perhaps, but more likely, we will need to align with some (if not all) of the EU regulations if we want to trade with it (something no forward-looking government would want to jeopardise). It is a pity that, after decades of having been a driver behind all decisions the EU has made, the UK will now have no say in drafting these regulations. Yet, they will impact us and most likely will need to be complied with: compromise we did when in the EU, compromise we must (and will) outside the EU!
What struck me about the Brexit debate prior to June 2016 was that the positive case for staying in the EU was never made. But even more striking maybe is that, after all the contortions, the acrimonious debates and upheaval anticipated in the next few months and years, in terms of UK science, we might just get back to where we were before we exited the EU: still free to innovate, still a wonderful place to do science, still a very attractive country for bright and talented people. In summary, Brexit will be seen as a pointless exercise and a realisation will dawn that the EU never was and never will be a brake to anything the UK desires to do. Au contraire!
Professor Gabriel Waksman, FRS, FMedSci, ML, MAE
University College London and Birkbeck
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