The UK should consider whether it could retain access to European research funding post-Brexit by allowing freedom of movement for scientists but not the rest of the population, a conference heard.
Dame Anne Glover, vice-principal for external affairs at the University of Aberdeen and the former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, said that such an arrangement, while not ideal, might be all that was achievable.
But the EuroScience Open Forum was also told that privileging researchers within the European Union might be unfair and might deepen the divide between academia and the rest of society.
Dame Anne argued that full membership of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme was vital because it allowed UK researchers to collaborate “not just within the EU but…with the best scientists in the world”.
“One thing we could start to explore…is could we get full membership of Horizon 2020 by the UK and agree to free movement of scientists,” Dame Anne said.
“It is unlikely that the UK government would wish to negotiate free movement of people or labour in a general context, but if we narrow it down…could we have Horizon 2020 with free movement of scientists as a starting point to try and capture the great advantage of this funding instrument?”
Experts have warned that the UK may have to retain freedom of movement if it wishes to stay a part of Horizon 2020 and its successor programme.
But Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, said that it would be “tricky” to restrict mobility to a particular group of people.
“I think there is a risk that if we argue ‘let’s just have freedom of movement for scientists and their families’, that does risk coming across as elitist, and I’m not sure how politically saleable that is across the EU,” Professor Curry said.
Dame Anne acknowledged that this was an issue, but argued that it was a matter of “pragmatically thinking what is acceptable at the UK end because immigration has been such a big issue”.
The conference, held in Manchester, was told that the chancellor’s Autumn Statement should include a commitment to make up any shortfall in research funding that occurs as a result of Brexit.
Juergen Maier, the chief executive of Siemens UK, said that the potential guarantee of £850 million annually would be worth it to maintain confidence in science and innovation.
Attendees also debated how academics, who overwhelmingly backed Remain, had failed to convince the wider population of the benefits of EU membership.
Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, argued that scientists’ approach to the referendum campaign “was viewed by many as self-serving”.
“We argued for our money and we argued for universities, and an awful lot of people in the UK thought there are things more important than that,” Dame Nancy said. “That means it is our job now to communicate more effectively…about the value that science brings to the UK, and brings to the EU.”
Dame Anne agreed that academics “didn’t send out the right messages”.
“We do need to understand that, by just talking about facts, it simply doesn’t move people,” she said. “We have to remember that the basic thing…for changing people’s minds…is ‘what’s in it for me’, and we didn’t answer that question.”