UK science must work with the US, but it won’t replace the EU

The UK-US research relationship post-Brexit must work for both countries, says Darragh Murnane

February 17, 2017
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Research in science is by its very definition global, and research programmes are already forged internationally with our partners across the globe. Europe is a leading continent for research excellence.

The Unesco Science Report from November 2015 showed that the European Union remains the world leader in terms of its global share of science researchers (22.2 per cent), and the US is well behind, in third place with 16.7 per cent of the world’s researchers. We will still want to work with large facilities such as Cern, and the Europe-wide European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Institut Laue-Langevin. 

The question arises, how can we replace the EU contribution that currently funds our collaborations and our presence and contributions to these institutions? The BBC reported today that the UK and the US are in talks to extend their “special relationship” in science after the UK leaves the EU. However, even if we wanted to replace the EU collaborators (which would be foolish when they are world leaders in their field), it is impossible to simply move the work that goes on in the EU to the US.

None of us is asking to terminate effective partnerships that the US can take advantage of. If we’re currently working with the best, we don’t necessarily want to swap that for second best, just because US scientists want to take advantage of our political situation.

Universities UK compiled some statistics in 2016 that showed that 14 per cent of all research funding in the UK was from EU funding sources in 2014-15, and that was worth £836 million. That £836 million is turned into economic outputs of £1.86 billion and has created 19,054 jobs across the UK. We still don’t know what’s going to replace that. Does the proposed framework agreement provide funding for the UK that is equivalent to what we’re giving up? What impact will that have on our science, including development of new medicines? How will our patents be protected?

One of the major concerns of the UK’s research scientists is not finding and working with collaborators but rather how that work gets funded. There is no certainty through Brexit about what will happen to research funding.

This is a matter of huge importance, because the UK, from most analyses, has been shown to receive more research funding back from the EU than it pays into the common funding pot: €5.4 billion was paid in over the period 2007-13, and €8.8 billion was received for direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities.

It’s not simply about replacing one set of partnerships with another set; rather, it’s about achieving the right partnerships that are necessary to undertake good research – and funding it. It’s difficult to counter the rhetoric around migration at the moment. Science can’t work with the construction of new borders and barriers to migration.

We already have to manage the politics of persuading talented collaborators to come and work in the UK. It’s admirable that the UK government is trying to make it easier for us to collaborate across the Atlantic. However, let’s see if the work is funded after Brexit with the same extra investment that being members of the EU has brought us.

Darragh Murnane is associate dean of enterprise and consultancy at the University of Hertfordshire, and member of the Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

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