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UK science is a British success story being sacrificed in the name of Brexit

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a visit to the Mologic Laboratory in Bedford. Photo: Jack Hill - WPA Pool / Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

In the words of another current cliché, UK science is already ‘world-beating’. But researchers are concerned that ministers’ plans may put that status in jeopardy as MARTIN MCQUILLAN reports.

The government has been lauding the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, where researchers are working with AstraZeneca on a vaccine to combat Covid-19. In late July, the Institute’s director Adrian Hill, told Sophie Inge of Research Professional News that, ‘across the programmes at the Jenner Institute—and there are more than 12 vaccines in clinical development now – the European Commission has probably been our largest funder over the past five years until now’.

The EU is not directly funding the coronavirus vaccine, but it has been key to developing the Institute’s capacity to do that work. ‘So that’s going to leave a gap and we are working hard to try to fill that, but it’s not easy, ‘ said Hill.

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the institute and one of the most prominent figures of the UK’s scientific response to the pandemic, added that non-Covid vaccine programmes, including on flu, are likely to be affected: ‘We have had EU funding and it’s not clear where that kind of money is going to come from in future.’

Boris Johnson has said that he wants the UK to become a ‘science superpower’ and Rishi Sunak’s March budget saw the government commit to doubling investment in science to an unprecedented £22 billion per year by the end of this parliament. While science-curious Dominic Cummings is the driving force behind a new civilian research hub, modelled on NASA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with an annual budget of £800 million.

On paper, these should be boon times for UK science, so why the pessimism from the Jenner Institute, and other British researchers?

Johnson and Cummings have failed to notice that UK science is already ‘world-class’. Until Brexit, the UK was the leading participant in the European Union’s Horizon2020 research schemes, repeatedly scooping the most awards from the European Research Council and the EU’s Marie Sk?odowska-Curie programme.

The next round of the EU’s collaborative cross-border research scheme, Horizon Europe, will begin on 1st January 2021, with a budget of at least 80.9 billion euros. It was expected that the UK would seek to become an associate member of the programme, allowing British scientists to continue to work with colleagues across Europe.

However, with a no-deal Brexit a distinct possibility, the government has in recent weeks been preparing its excuses for not joining Horizon Europe.

Previously, the UK’s participation in Europe-wide research programmes came with its membership of the EU. The UK has always been a net beneficiary of any scheme, i.e. our scientists have always won more money from research grants than the UK contributed to the programme budget.

But under draft terms published in March as part of Brexit trade negotiations, the UK would now be expected to pay both a participation fee and a surcharge for the administration of the research programme.

The UK’s contribution to Horizon Europe would be based on the ratio of UK to EU GDP – about 0.15 – and an overall budget of 80 billion euros would see Britain pay 12 billion euros plus administrative charges. This is more than UK scientists might hope to win in research grants from the scheme.

One Whitehall source has described the cost of associating with the scheme as ‘eye-watering’ and it is believed that the Treasury would expect any net financial loss from participation to be paid for out of the UK science budget.

The recently published UK R&D roadmap, which sets out the government’s priorities for spending its increased investment in science, says that the UK aims ‘to maintain a close and friendly collaborative relationship with our European partners, seeking to agree a fair and balanced deal for participation in EU R&D schemes’.

But the UK government believes that it has been singled out for unfair treatment on the cost of associating with Horizon Europe, saying that a promised correction mechanism to ensure parity would only work to the benefit of the EU – a belief that was not entirely dispelled when the European Commission failed to confirm or deny that any other associate member country would be asked to pay a similar joining fee.

Effectively, the UK wants to have its cake and eat it, by continuing to be a net beneficiary but to no longer be a member of the EU.

Last month, the umbrella body for British higher education, UniversitiesUK, and one of Britain’s largest funders of science, the Wellcome Trust, along with more than 100 organisations and top scientists, issued a statement pleading for compromise between the EU and UK government. Signatories included Carlos Moedas, the former EU research commissioner; Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the World Trade Organisation; and Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and head of the Francis Crick Institute in London.

UK researchers are now extremely nervous that they will be locked out of the next phase of scientific collaboration across Europe. They are not reassured by government promises to make good on any lost research funding through alternative domestic schemes.

For over a year, civil servants have been working on UK alternatives to the EU’s student mobility scheme Erasmus+ and European-wide research programmes. No details have yet seen the light of day from Whitehall.

When Switzerland was temporarily suspended from its associate membership of EU research schemes, as a result of a referendum vote to limit immigration from the EU, the Swiss discovered just how expensive and time consuming it is to run your own version of collaborative schemes for international science.

Robert-Jan Smits, a former European Commission director general of research and innovation, when asked in March 2019 about a UK alternative to the European Research Council said, ‘talk to the Swiss because the Swiss tried to do that… Of course it was not a success at all.’

The ERC took ‘years to establish’ and ‘the credibility is the international competition’, he added. ‘Good luck with it,’ he told Times Higher Education. At the time Smits, like everyone else, expected the UK to be a member of Horizon Europe.

That could still happen, but it depends upon the success or otherwise of the wider Brexit negotiations, and few are brave enough to bet on that particular horse. The eyes of UK scientists are slowly moving with regret towards domestic alternatives to European collaboration.

These include the Dominic Cummings-sponsored advanced research projects agency (ARPA). But no one is quite sure what it will do.

Despite a promise from Boris Johnson that the government would ‘get ARPA done’ this summer there is no sign of a plan, beyond MPs and academics in Belfast making the case for the agency to be based in Northern Ireland.

Ian Campbell the executive chair of Innovate UK – the existing government agency tasked with transforming blue skies research into commercial products – resigned in July after complaining in an article in the Telegraph about the innovation agency’s lack of autonomy. Many suspect that Cummings’ support for ARPA was the cause of Campbell’s departure.

His Telegraph op-ed warned against ‘implicitly jettisoning’ existing bodies in favour of ARPA, which he said should be built and integrated ‘into a reinvigorated Innovate UK’.

Campbell is not the only senior research leader to depart his post since Johnson and Cummings started taking an interest in UK science. Mark Walport, a former chief scientific adviser left his role as head of UK Research and Innovation, the overarching body for Britain’s research councils.

He has been replaced, to the surprise of some, by Ottoline Leyser, a talented Cambridge bio-scientist but with comparatively little experience of running complex organisations with multi-billion pound budgets. Like the science minister, Derby North MP Amanda Solloway, she is seen by some as something of a novice in the political minefield of UK science policy.

One of the persistent fantasies of Brexit is that it will allow the UK to have an economy other than the one it actually has. The government’s plans to invest in science are tied up with the belief that Britain can become a Silicon Valley off the shores of Europe.

Impressive as the proposed investment looks, the government’s target is for spending on R&D in the UK to be equivalent to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. This would only bring the UK up to the average of OECD countries – Germany already spends 3.1% of GDP on research.

Hitting that 2.4% target not only depends upon government spending but on crowding-in investment from the private sector. But continued Brexit uncertainty combined with a global pandemic and a deteriorating relationship with China, makes reaching that goal look all but impossible.

In contrast to promises to make the UK a science superpower the reality is quite different. There have been six separate science ministers in two years: Chris Skidmore was sacked from the role twice, Sam Gyimah resigned in protest ostensibly over the UK’s domestic alternative to the EU Galileo satellite system before becoming a Liberal Democrat, while the prime minister’s bother Jo Johnson resigned from the cabinet over Brexit. Solloway’s defining characteristic that distinguishes her from her predecessors is that she has not yet spoken out against the damage Brexit will do to UK science.

There have been attempts to ensure researchers can be fast-tracked through the post-Brexit immigration system, but good intentions are coming up against the brutal reality of the considerable financial cost of applying to remain in Britain and how unattractive the UK has now become for researchers whose work depends upon international collaboration.

Knowledge and discovery do not stop at borders. There is no such thing as ‘British science’ only scientific joint working. Problems like pandemics and climate change require international solutions, and partnership with our closest neighbours in the EU has been the springboard to past cooperation across the world.

All of that now looks uncertain. Will UK science be a genuine British success story sacrificed on the altar of Brexit?

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