Throughout the referendum campaign and the aftermath of the result, the effect of leaving the EU on science and innovation was largely ignored in favour of immigration, national sovereignty and broader economic arguments which normally referenced the financial sector. In fact, the quaternary sector is an important area of our economy and the effects of Brexit are already being felt in the research sector.
The major issue with leaving the EU for UK science, particularly in universities, is funding. For the period 2007 – 2013, the UK received €8.8bn in research grants from a possible €107bn, the fourth largest share. With respect to funding awarded on a competitive basis, the UK received €6.9bn, the second largest share. Clearly the question here is where is that funding going to come from in future? The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has guaranteed funding for EU backed projects until 2020, but after that the future of funding is uncertain. There have also been reports regarding UK scientists already being rejected from EU projects or being asked to stand down from leadership roles following the referendum result, citing uncertainty over funding as their reason. The UK has some of the best universities in the world and we should continue to ensure we are still leading Europe in research and technology.
There are positives to leaving the EU for research and innovation. The EU is well known for being slow to change and at times over regulating, and the quaternary sector is no exception. Regulation is by no means a bad thing but in science as in finance, too much leads to stifling progress and innovation. A report by the Science and Technology Committee in June 2016 discussing the relationship between EU and UK science expressed issues with the regulation process, citing ‘complexity and cost, its timeliness, its application of the precautionary principle and its consistency’ as areas of improvement. This equates to making the regulatory process robust but simple, time efficient and cost effective. The position taken by many consulted in this report was that they didn’t necessarily mind much of the regulatory framework but the EU was extremely slow to correct policy. For example, the clinical trials directive has been inflexible and inconsistent, and despite the corrections due to come into force in 2018, the Wellcome Trust complained that this has taken nearly two decades in which the process might have been more efficient. This position was also taken by Professor Sir John Bell of Oxford University, who wrote an article in the Times in September discussing what has been described above. It seems that leaving the EU will make the regulatory system more efficient and flexible to change.
One of Commercial Awareness For Students’ authors currently studies Chemistry at Oxford University and was able to talk to some post-doctoral researchers about their opinion on this issue. Surprisingly, much of the hysteria seen in the media about the loss of EU funding for science and innovation after Brexit, is not shared by those in the industry. While they noted concerns about the UK government replacing the lost EU funding, they did not see Brexit as a severe threat to the industry, as many media outlets have suggested. Funding for research doesn’t just come from the EU, it also comes from a wide variety of organisations such as the Royal Society and the EPSRC. We are losing the largest section of funding but there are a wide variety of other fellowships and funding opportunities available.
In summary, it seems despite the loss in funding and the barriers faced such as setbacks in collaborative work across the EU, overcoming those initial issues means a better framework in which to research in, with more simple and flexible regulation and therefore hopefully faster progress and innovation.