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“How will British science survive Brexit?”

Hasan Chowdhury, a Wellcome Scholar working at the New Statesman, explores what the future of science and tech looks like in the UK, without the European Union

Science and tech are two industries most likely to be affected by Brexit. Naturally, therefore, both were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU.

A survey run in March by Nature found that of 907 UK researchers polled, around 83 per cent believed the UK should vote remain.

UK scientists receive close to £1 billion annually from the EU for research – a testament to the quality and influence of the work done on British soil.

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK supported these EU projects by spending €5.4 billion, and was rewarded in return with funds of around €8.8 billion; it’s a give and take relationship that has seen growth for both.

The combined science and tech sector has laid down the framework and investment for some of the most important research projects in the world.

Great discoveries

To date, the brightest minds in the UK and the rest of Europe have combined to work on highly influential projects.

It was the Large Hadron Collider headed by CERN that discovered the long-awaited Higgs Boson particle discovery.

The 10-year Human Brain Project set itself the gargantuan goal back in 2013 of unravelling the mysteries of the human brain.

Not forgetting the European Space Agency, which has helped expand space exploration as European astronauts, including those from Britain, have headed into the ether.

In May 2016, chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Sir Michael Sterling announced that UK scientist Professor John Womersley will lead Europe’s next major science project – the European Spallation Source – which is a “multi-disciplinary research centre based on the world’s most powerful neutron source.”

It’s the type of project that creates openings and opportunities for researchers, in all fields of science, to really materialise their most ingenious ideas.

The organisation techUK, which according to their website represents more than 900 technology companies, said in a statement that the result has created many uncertainties. It has attempted to appease any concerns by declaring that the UK tech sector “will play its part in helping the UK to prepare, adapt and thrive in a future outside the European Union”.

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has reinforced techUK’s concerns, highlighting areas that need to be addressed as soon as possible.

The institute believes that discussions with the EU should focus on ensuring access to digital markets, freedom to innovate and growth of “our academic research base and industrial collaborations in computing . . . to shore up and build on a major driver of UK economic success and international influence in the digital sphere”.

Confusion over the UK’s position in the EU single market has prompted questions about the freedom of movement of labour, raising concerns among researchers from Europe about their future role in UK-based projects.

The naturally collaborative nature of STEM research, the cross-breeding of ideas that fosters scientific and technological advancement, could be severely hampered if limitations are imposed as a result the UK’s separation from the single market.

Big hitters

Speaking to the BBC, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and director of The Francis Crick Institute said: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science.”

The Royal Society reports that UK universities house more than 31,000 researchers of EU origin. The danger of losing much of that support is now imminent.

Many other leading voices in the STEM community have added their voices to the debate too.

Paul Drayson, former Minister of Science in the Department for Business, told Scientific American: “The very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.”

Remain advocate Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities and science (and brother to the leave campaign’s front man, Boris Johnson), stated to a House of Lords committee that there are very little means to make up for severed EU finances.

The referendum result means that a solution to replace that money from a different source must now be sought. Johnson Jnr tweeted:

Despite the science and tech sector favouring a Remain vote, there are some who were leaning towards Brexit pre-referendum.

Scientists for Brexit

Scientists for Britain, a group of UK scientists who, according to their website were “concerned that pro-EU campaigners are misusing science for political gain”, issued a statement after the referendum.

They thanked leave voters for sharing their vision of the UK “outside the political structures of the European Union”.

Though there are many new policies that will need to be drawn up, it is evident that the UK’s requirement to prop itself up once outside the EU will only serve to hinder science and tech growth. The industries best served through European and global outreach are now at risk of being marginalised.

Currently in place is Horizon 2020 – an effort touted as “the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever” as almost €80 million is available to researchers seeking to take their ideas “from the lab to the market”.

Once Article 50 is invoked, it is crucial that any negotiations that take place ensure the UK’s spot within the programme is maintained.

There are options to maintain some European integration; gaining an “associated country” status like Switzerland could continue to strengthen the STEM sector, for example.

But prioritisation of science and tech seems bleaker by the day.

As a new landscape takes shape post-Brexit, we must work tirelessly to prevent our most progressive and forward-thinking frontiers caving in.