Johnson ‘sunshine’ shouldn’t blind us to no-deal Brexit science damage

The prime minster’s speech offers a reminder of Vote Leave’s pledges on UK science, and misleading words about EU support, John Morgan writes

August 9, 2019

Boris Johnson wants to create “a new fast-track visa system to attract leading scientists to work in the UK”. Beneath the bravado, there were a few other noteworthy features to his announcement: a failure to acknowledge the role of the European Union in supporting British scientific discovery, a failure to address what a no-deal Brexit would mean for UK science, and a reminder of the Vote Leave campaign’s claims about science.

The prime minister said in his speech: “We were home to the world’s first national DNA database, we discovered graphene, and our cutting-edge scientists should be proud to follow in the footsteps of titans like Ada Lovelace and Nobel Laureates Francis Crick and Peter Higgs.”

“We”, the UK, discovered graphene in the sense that two Russian-born scientists, benefiting from about £10 million of EU funding via European Research Council grants for outstanding researchers, discovered the super-strong, super-thin material while working at the University of Manchester.

Under a no-deal Brexit, it is unlikely the UK would be able to associate to the EU’s next research programme and would thus lose access to the ERC.

The former president of ETH Zurich described ERC grants to me as like “mini Nobel prizes” – and if leading researchers cannot access these grants if they work full-time in the UK, no-deal Brexit brings an obvious and major deterrent against some of the world’s leading scientists coming to work here. In which case, Johnson’s talk about making the UK the best place in the world to do science would be no more than hot air.

Johnson’s announcement included a commitment that the UK government would evaluate funding applications to the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, including to the ERC, submitted before any no-deal Brexit and fund the successful ones. That’s an improvement on the previous picture, but offers no clarity on future access to the EU’s research programme, including the ERC.

Johnson also said: “We are not only going to participate in the Horizon schemes, we in the new UK government are determined to finance big science as well.” Just how is that possible under a no-deal Brexit which ruptures wider UK-EU relations?

Andre Geim, one of the researchers who discovered graphene and was recognised with a Nobel prize, tells the Times in an article published today: “The government may try and reduce the barriers to entry for scientists but they cannot reduce turmoil that would be caused to science in the UK by a no-deal Brexit. Scientists are not fools. They know that turmoil is inevitable for many years.”

There’s no mention of the ERC in the Times article, but it’s a key element of the graphene story.

All this reminded me of how the Vote Leave campaign – now effectively the government – misrepresented Geim’s words during the referendum campaign.

Thirteen Tory MPs who were part of the campaign, including Johnson and Michael Gove, signed a letter calling the EU’s research programme “unnecessarily bureaucratic”.

It continued: “As the Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim said: ‘I can offer no nice words for the EU framework programmes which...can be praised only by Europhobes for discrediting the whole idea of an effectively working Europe.’ After we vote leave, it should be a priority to increase funding for science and fix problems with the funding system, not all of which are the fault of the EU.”

As I pointed out at the time, the ellipsis in the MPs’ quotation from Geim’s Nobel lecture removed the words “except for the European Research Council”. I wonder why Vote Leave removed those words?

Those associated with Vote Leave seem to have a hard time acknowledging the importance of the ERC and the respect it has within science.

Vote Leave also published a briefing on science during the campaign, which said that “the EU has too much control and is anti-science”.

The Johnson announcement on visas is straight from this briefing, which said that after Brexit the UK could have a “much more sensible “ immigration policy “in which criminals are banned and we explicitly fast track scientists to come to Britain and work here”.

Vote Leave also said in that briefing: “If Britain takes back control of the money we send to Brussels and diverts some of it into science, we could make Britain a world leader in crucial fields.”

"We could safeguard British research which is also threatened by government cuts and Whitehall’s anti-science culture stretching over decades. We could also continue to participate in international scientific collaborations, including the EU’s Horizon programme, just as other non-EU countries do.”

The briefing repeated that the UK would continue to be able to collaborate in research with the EU once it left the union. It added: “Given countries like Fiji already participate it is unbelievable to claim that Britain will be excluded.”

Robert-Jan Smits, formerly the European Commission’s directorgeneral for research and innovation, recently said: “In [the event that] Boris Johnson walks out without a Brexit deal, the chances for the UK to become associated to Horizon Europe are not close to zero, they are zero.”

“No one can expect from Brussels that favours are given to someone who has enjoyed a great meal with good wine and then leaves the restaurant without paying his part of the bill.”

The next programme starts in 2021 and timing is already tight for the UK to associate, even without a no-deal Brexit derailing the whole enterprise.

Are Vote Leave and Johnson’s pledges on access to EU research super-strong like graphene, or just super-thin? We may soon find out.

John Morgan is deputy news editor at Times Higher Education

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