The Brexit effect: What is happening to the UK science industry?

It’s still impossible to know the full effect of the Brexit referendum on the UK science industry. The vote to leave the European Union will have repercussions for many years to come in almost every area of the economy. Science doesn’t operate in a vacuum, far from it, and it will undoubtedly feel the effect of any change in direction for the country.

As March 2019 – and the official date of the UK’s EU departure – gets ever closer, attention is turning to the finer details. Scientists, businesses and lobby groups are looking to retain the benefits to be had from the UK’s existing arrangements in any deal brokered – regardless of whether that happens to be in or out of the Customs Union or Single Market.

So, what’s the state of play when it comes to science and Brexit?

Investment at risk and regulatory hurdles to clear

Firstly, it pays to consider what might be at risk as a result of Brexit. For that, we need to look at the current state of play.

Inevitably when it comes to Brexit, that leads to a discussion about money. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received £8 billion from the EU to conduct research, which is £3 billion more than it put into the funding pot as a member. Any reduction in that funding would be hard to take for the science sector and the UK economy as a whole.

It’s not just about money, however. British scientists currently play an active part in European research projects and, on top of that, 62% of the UK’s research activity has an international focus. Take a look at the pharmaceutical consulting services offered by a company such as Alacrita – a business with bases in the UK, US and EU – and you’ll see that modern science transcends geographical boundaries and is a globalised industry.

UK companies can also tap into a jobs market of approximately 500 million people with few barriers to employing experts from across the continent. The new relationship with the EU will undoubtedly need to reflect this.

Something else that will need to be reflected is the way in which medicines are brought to the market. It’s likely that the UK will be leaving the European Medicines Agency, which has granted companies the chance to license drugs across the whole EU – and a new infrastructure will need to establish ways in which this process continues post-Brexit.

Prime Minister’s assurances welcomed

This backdrop – with questions over funding, movement of talent, ease of collaboration and regulation – forms the basis of the debate for the science sector. It’s against this that Prime Minister Theresa May made a recent intervention.

In a potentially significant move, May vowed to continue to pay to allow the UK to have access to EU research projects, and said that research and development work with nuclear body Euratom would also carry on.

Speaking at Jodrell Bank Observatory, Mrs May said: “The United Kingdom would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes.

“Of course, such an association would involve an appropriate UK financial contribution, which we would willingly make. In return for that contribution, we would look to maintain a suitable level of influence in line with our financial contribution and the benefits we bring.”

She added: “The UK will always be open to the brightest and the best researchers to come and make their valued contribution. When we leave the European Union, I will ensure that does not change.”

Those “warm words” were welcomed by the science sector as being evidence of a positive approach that would not jeopardise the sector.

Prospect senior deputy general secretary Sue Ferns said: “The UK has benefitted hugely from EU science projects so it is extremely welcome news that the Government has finally listened to the science sector and trade unions like Prospect and recognised that it is overwhelmingly in our national interest to remain a member of those programmes in the future.

“The fact that the Government has taken so long to come to this position has caused huge uncertainty for UK scientists, with Prospect members reporting that they have been cut out of some projects because of uncertainty about future UK participation. In that light it is encouraging that the Prime Minister highlighted that the UK would be seeking influence in future EU science projects as well as access to funding.”

She added that questions still remain for the Government to answer. “Firstly, how do they intend to turn the Prime Minister’s warm words on the contribution of EU scientists to the UK into concrete reassurances for the short term and eventually into a migration system that continues to allow the free exchange of people and knowledge across the continent?”

Waiting for answers on Brexit questions

The Brexit vote has raised many questions for those in the science sector. Mrs May’s recent intervention has raised hopes that some of these questions might be addressed positively but, as yet, there are no firm answers for those concerned.

These are just some of the raft of details that will need to be ironed out as the talks come to a head over the rest of 2018. The standing of the UK’s science sector – from an economic and reputational perspective – depends on getting this right.

Jessica Foreman is a writer on behalf on Alacrita.