In the lead up to the referendum, the Government’s Science & Technology Committee noted that the UK’s membership of the European Union has a “wide-ranging influence” on UK science and research.
“The UK’s level of engagement with EU funding programmes, for instance, is considerable. EU membership also has significant bearing on scientific collaborations, the mobility of researchers, regulatory frameworks and research and development (R&D) undertaken by businesses, to highlight just some of the interactions between EU membership and the vitality, or otherwise, of science and research in the UK.”
It perhaps comes as no surprise then to find that the British scientific community is more than a little apprehensive about the future of their sector. Traditionally taciturn scientists have been stepping up to voice their worries, with the likes of lobby groups such as Scientists for EU becoming a mouthpiece for mounting concerns.
The potential woes faced by British scientists and their respective industries have much in common with the general mood pervading every corner of British industry, from agriculture to finance. A third of UK manufacturers are planning to shift operations out of the UK, according to a recent KPMG report, with several large science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based businesses looking to join the move.
“While this might seem counter-intuitive at a time when the low pound value is encouraging greater investment into the UK, businesses with interconnected pan-European supply chains may be planning for the possibility that the UK exits the EU Customs Union without an EU-UK Free Trade Agreement in place,” reads the report.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) regulatory body is one of the major science hubs that will be mainland-bound post-Brexit. EMA will be taking its 900 highly skilled workers with it and has already been inundated with attractive offers from savvy nations like Germany and Italy that have been touting for their business and are currently the two largest manufacturers of medical products in the EU.
The second big stumbling block is the impact that the cessation of research funding from the EU is likely to have on British science. MPs attending a health select committee meeting last month were warned by Professor David Lomas, speaking for UK university hospitals, that British medical researchers were already being “bumped off” European Research Council (ERC) grant applications.
“Previously having a British member would help you in your application to get funding … Now you are less than an asset, so we have had academics removed from grant applications,” said Prof Lomas.
Prof Lomas’ own university, University College London, and Cambridge University are major beneficiaries of ERC grants, raising more funds this way than any other institute in the EU. He believes that it is essential that British patients are able to profit from the cutting edge research that the money currently allows.
“If we don’t get the very best people we don’t drive the research and innovation where we punch above our weight. If we can’t attract the very best, we can’t lead in the innovations that will lead to patient benefits.”
To top problems off, potential changes to Erasmus schemes, higher tuition fees and the rising cost of living has considerably reduced access to British universities for European students and would be researchers, and has already seen EU applications drop by seven percent on average, and as high as 14 percent at the University of Cambridge. The highest reduction is reportedly in post-graduate applications that are key to British universities staying at the forefront of global research.
In addition to reports of top academics pulling out of UK-based research following the Brexit vote, the move could prove to be the “biggest disaster” to higher education for many years, according to the Government’s education select committee. Perhaps the most worrying is the drop in international nursing applications where numbers have fallen by a quarter, adding strain to an already stretched NHS.
“The seven per cent decline in applications of students from the EU after the referendum result should be seen as a warning that studying in the UK is a considerably less attractive option than it was 12 months ago,” said NUS Vice President Sorana Vieru.
The dwindling access to European STEM talent is worrying both at the research and manufacture levels and is likely to have considerable knock-on effects commercially for a burgeoning British STEM industry.
Stephen Cooper, UK head of industrial manufacturing at KPMG, highlighted the “appetite for new technologies” that exists in the manufacturing industry today, but warned that the lack of skilled workers and the increasing gap between supply and demand for STEM talent remains a concern.
“Digital scientists, digital engineers, digital architects, cyber security engineers – none of these existed 20 years ago. Having access to the right skills and investment will be crucial to ensure Britain’s manufacturing sector unlocks its full potential and remains fit to compete on the international stage,” he said.
While Carlos Moedas, the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, told the EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester that EU funding of research projects will “continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality”. There are no such assurances after our official divorce from the EU in 2020.
However, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury also announced a range of further assurances in relation to the EU funding that the UK currently receives. And Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, addressing the Wellcome Trust, claimed “new, additional money beyond the £26.3 billion that the Government have already committed to science”, during EU funding agreements, would be made available for universities and firms after the move.
The government is now under high pressure to follow through with its promises as the Brexit negotiations get underway if the UK is going to remain a leading light in the medical and STEM sectors.
“The strength of our globally respected research base is an unparalleled strategic asset for the UK and we must continue to invest in it. With 0.9 percent of the world’s population, and 3.2 percent of its R&D spend, we produce 15.9% of its most important research output. The UK is home to 4 of the top 6 universities in the world. The output of this engine of new knowledge discovery is a constant source of potential commercial advantage,” warned Innovate UK.