A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for the UK science community

Europe is the birthplace of the enlightenment and modern science. Even in the 20th century, fundamental discoveries that transformed our understanding of the world from quantum mechanics and relativity to genes and the structure of DNA came from Europe. These discoveries paved the way for modern technology and transformed our lives.

Yet by the time I had to choose where to go to graduate school in the early 1970s, the USA had become the top destination of choice for young scientists. This relative decline was only reversed after decades of close scientific cooperation between European countries. Being part of the EU has played a huge role in the UK becoming a global scientific powerhouse and a magnet for talent. That success is now at risk.

Leaving the EU without a deal poses a very real threat to scientific progress, damaging innovation and the economy, the NHS, and our overall future. UK science has little or nothing to gain from Brexit but plenty to lose.

The Royal Society welcomed the government’s recent commitment to an ‘unparalleled partnership’ on research and innovation, but the clock is ticking to March 2019 and scientists are worried that when the chips are down and the negotiations tense, science will be sacrificed in the name of ideology. The lack of a deal on science will have serious consequences.

First and foremost will be our ability to collaborate with and attract the best scientists from throughout the EU. Research is international and ideas flow freely around the world – just like the scientists behind them. One in six of our academic staff are from the EU and there is little clarity about what would happen to them under a no-deal scenario.

Seven out of ten of our strongest scientific partners are EU nations and currently 60 per cent of the UK’s internationally co-authored papers are with EU partners. Crashing out of the EU without a deal could undermine decades of close scientific collaboration. Such collaboration currently allows us to have a scale of ambition and international influence that cannot be matched if we go it alone.

Crashing out will also affect our ability to attract the best talent. It is not only a question of whether researchers can come to Britain, but whether they want to. For decades, Britain has been perceived as an attractive, outwardly-facing country that is a great place to work for scientists. There is only anecdotal evidence that Brexit has made scientists leave or not want to come here, but the increasing prospect of no deal has significantly darkened the mood.

Without a deal, we could also lose around £1 billion a year in EU research funding, or around a tenth of the UK’s yearly public spending on research. Such funding has played an important role in, for example, the development of graphene in Manchester and contributed to advances in quantum computing in Bristol. At a time when the country will be more dependent on an innovative, knowledge-based economy, we cannot afford to reduce investment in science.

A no-deal Brexit will create major uncertainties about scientific regulation. For example, the EU Clinical Trials Regulation is due to come in to effect in May 2020, meaning it will not automatically become UK law. Without regulatory alignment, the UK will be excluded from participating with our European partners on clinical trials, adding a significant hurdle for UK patients and researchers, as well as our world-leading life sciences industry.

People with rare diseases will lose out the most, as patient populations in individual EU countries are often too small to recruit sufficient numbers, requiring member states to work together to make scientific progress in better understanding these conditions. This will limit the NHS’s ability to provide cutting-edge treatments. Last week we also saw doctors warning of the dangers of leaving Euratom without a deal, which would see critical supplies of medical isotopes imported for cancer patients held up at the border.

The government’s Chequers white paper has a dedicated section on science and innovation, but at this stage they are just words. I am a natural optimist and still very much hope that science gets a good deal out of the negotiations ahead. A deal on science is in the best interests of Europe as a whole and should not be sacrificed as collateral damage over disagreements on other issues.

If we are going to successfully tackle global problems like climate change, human disease and food security, we can’t do so in isolation. There is no scenario where trashing our relationships with our closest scientific collaborators in the EU gets us closer to these goals.

No deal is a bad deal for science, and ultimately the future prospects of the UK.

Venki Ramakrishnan is a Nobel Prize-winning biologist and the president of the Royal Society


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