European science ‘will be damaged by Brexit’

UK exit from EU research would boost success rates for other countries – but at cost of quality, experts warn

May 12, 2017
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European science faces a “double whammy” of reduced funding and a less forceful voice in budget negotiations if the UK leaves the European Union’s research programme, according to the Republic of Ireland’s chief science adviser, Mark Ferguson.

“People shouldn’t come away with the idea that the loss is all for the UK,” he said during a panel discussion considering Brexit’s consequences for research in the rest of Europe, held in London on 8 May.

It is not yet clear whether UK researchers will be able to access the EU’s research programmes after Brexit. The country may seek to follow the example of Switzerland and become an associate member in research, which would allow it continue to participate despite not being a member of the union.

But if all UK ties to EU research programmes are cut, the European budget for research would shrink because the UK would no longer contribute to it. In addition, there would be no UK representatives involved in negotiations on the budget and the organisation of the next programme, Framework Programme 9, due to start in 2021.

“The UK has been a force for good in European science…It has fought strongly for distribution of resource based on excellence as opposed to European spread,” Professor Ferguson said in the discussion, part of an event organised by EuroScience under the title “A discussion on Brexit: the impact on science and innovation in the UK and the rest of Europe”.

Also speaking at the event at London’s Royal Institution, Rolf Tarrach, president of the European University Association, said that there was “no doubt” that Brexit would affect the next Framework Programme.

“It will be very hard for officials in Brussels to set up FP9 without any clear picture of whether the UK will reach an agreement like the Swiss have done or not,” he said, adding that he would not be surprised if there was a cut to the EU research budget.

If the UK is not involved in the next programme, the success rates for researchers in other European countries will rise. “But the price we will pay is quality. That is what we got from the Brits. That [loss] will be very damaging,” Professor Tarrach said.

He added that the European research community views the UK government’s approach to science in Brexit as “confusing” and “difficult to follow”.

UK researchers were “being pushed” to develop collaborations outside Europe, he said, and this could be a “danger” to UK-EU relations.

“If you are so interested in working with all the other [countries], you are saying that you are less interested in working with your European colleagues. That is something that we feel,” he said, adding that European researchers want to continue working with their UK counterparts.

“However, how strong is this will? Will it resist all kinds of other things that might happen on a political level?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Ole Petersen, vice-president of Academia Europaea, said that UK researchers needed to make clear to their European colleagues that “the values espoused by the UK government are not the values of the academic community”.

“If we said that, the atmosphere from the European science community would be a great deal different,” he said.

He added that European science needed to remain unified to compete with the threat coming from research in Asia, where there is “phenomenal investment in science going on”.

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