Brexit department lacks scientific adviser as talks get under way

UK government ‘negligent’ to begin negotiations to leave EU without key role being filled, campaigners say

July 18, 2017
Struggling with maths

Researchers have expressed concern about the UK government’s decision to start negotiating the country’s exit from the European Union while the department in charge of talks remains without a chief scientific adviser.

Talks to negotiate leaving the EU started on 19 June and among the many topics up for discussion is whether UK scientists will still have access to Brussels’ research funding programmes after Brexit.

In February, the MPs from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called on the Department for Exiting the EU to “hire a chief scientific adviser as a matter of priority” so that the UK’s research base can be “heard at the negotiating table”.

But a list of chief scientific advisers on the UK government’s website shows that there is still no adviser for the department.  

Mike Galsworthy, programme director for campaign group Scientists for EU, said that it is “just plain negligent” not to have one given that Theresa May, the prime minister, said that science is one of 12 priorities in the negotiations.

Without a chief scientific adviser there is no one to “draw advice together into [a] DExEU vision” and spot science-related policies moving through the department, warned Dr Galsworthy, a visiting researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London.

“If Brexit is as complex as the moon landings, as David Davis [the UK’s Brexit secretary] suggests, maybe we could have just one scientist for the mission?” he added.

Andrew Steele, chair of the Science is Vital campaign group, said that the government knows that science gains hugely from the UK’s membership of the EU and should “put their money where their mouth is”.

“Hiring a chief scientific adviser for DExEU would be a start in reassuring the scientific community in the UK, which is frankly very worried about Brexit,” he added.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, conceded that the department was “deficient” without anyone in the position, but said that this would not have any bearing on negotiations for the framework programmes.

There is “huge confusion in the scientific community” about the role of a chief scientific adviser, Dr Flanagan said, pointing out that it is not “a cheerleader position for science” and instead is intended “to bring a critical science-informed perspective on policies that have a scientific impact”, he said.

Decisions surrounding the framework programme were issues of “economic policy”, Dr Flanagan said. “A scientist is not any better qualified to comment on that than an economist, in principle,” he added.

A spokesperson for DExEU said: “With support from Sir Mark Walport [the Government Chief Scientific Adviser]...we are making sure that we access the best scientific expertise from both within and outside government.”

Naomi Weir, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said the DExEU should have a chief scientific adviser of its own.

She cautioned that Sir Mark was already working part-time in two roles as he leads the creation of UK Research and Innovation, the new science funding body, and that there were risks of “spreading that further at such an important time”.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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