Funding, free movement and influence are the big challenges facing science in Britain

By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent

“It’s a disaster”.

That was Nobel Prize winning physicist Peter Higgs’ response when I asked him for his reaction to the result of the Brexit referendum, just hours after it was delivered last Friday.

And he wasn’t alone in his views.

Indeed a few weeks earlier, Professor Higgs had been among 13 Nobel Prize winning scientists who had warned losing EU funding of science would put British research “in jeopardy”.

“Inside the EU, Britain helps steer the biggest scientific powerhouse in the world”, the group had claimed in a letter to the Daily Telegraph.

A survey of 666 British researchers by Nature three months ago also revealed that some 80% were against Britain leaving the union.

Around half also predicted Brexit would be “very harmful” for British science.

In the days that have followed the momentous decision by the British people, there’s been little evidence of the science community finding a silver lining in an outcome which they had predicted before the vote would deliver a very dark cloud indeed.

The reasons for this are pretty obvious, and tricky to refute.

FUNDING

Since 2014, British researchers have received €1.4 billion in funding from the EU towards their work, and in the six years prior to that, the country took out around 60% more in research funding than it put in.

UK universities receive around 16% of their total research funding from Europe, according to Nature, making them heavily dependent on the bloc for the resources they need to do their work.

British-based researchers also consistently win the largest number of grants from funding calls by the European Research Council.

It may turn out to be feasible for Britain to negotiate some mechanism to enable its scientists to continue to apply for this type of funding.

But right now it is far from clear how that would work, and what conditions could be imposed in return for the privilege.

Some countries outside Europe are currently allowed to compete for European research funding, in return for paying into the funds in the first place.

However, given its success in the research field, how happy are people likely to be if Britain starts taking out more than it contributes?

Leave campaigners, such as Michael Gove, had pointed to the possibility that the money saved by Britain not having to contribute to the EU could be partly funnelled into research.

With so many areas of the British economy previously funded by the EU likely to compete for the contents of that pot though, it’s unclear how far it will stretch.

Union Jack EU

FREE MOVEMENT

Free movement is another area which is going to pose a major challenge for future British science.

A recent Economist report pointed out that 1% of the world’s population reside in the UK – yet 4% of scientists do.

Together they produce 16% of the world’s most “highly cited” research journal articles.

15% of staff in UK universities come from other EU nations.

British students, like those here in Ireland and elsewhere in the union, are able to study abroad under the Erasmus programme.

But what if Brexit results in a clamp down on the free movement of people between Britain and the rest of Europe?

Sure, communication and collaboration has never been easier using modern technology tools.

But that is nowhere near the same as having researchers move to an institution, where they bring direct knowledge, teaching experience and perhaps most importantly funding.

Three pillars upon which research, science and innovation are founded.

One suggestion doing the rounds since last Friday’s result is that free movement of scientists could be the price the UK would have to pay for the right to compete for European funding.

Indeed prior to the vote, Leave campaigners had indicated that Britain could set its own immigration policy which could fast track scientists and graduates.

But like in so many other areas, uncertainty abounds about how, or even whether, this could work.

INFLUENCE

The final big area where British science will lose out is influence.

The EU is a big actor on the world research stage.

Its policies are closely scrutinised, its regulations studied and its decisions mirrored by other blocs and states.

Britain undoubtedly had a disproportionately high level of control over how those policies, regulations and decisions were formed.

But in the future, if it is no longer at the table, then that will not be possible.

Not everyone in British science sees that as necessarily a bad thing.

Cancer researcher Professor Angus Dalgleish from St George’s Hospital in London argued during the campaign that clinical trials in Britain had been hampered by a 2001 EU directive which introduced tighter controls – although amendments taking account of concerns were introduced thirteen years later following lobbying by Britain and others.

IRELAND

What all this means for Ireland is, like everything else to do with the Brexit vote, unclear.

It might mean more success for Irish researchers applying for EU funding, if the competition from Britain is no longer present.

But then those applications for funding may not be so strong if they do not include collaborative relationships with top British-based scientists.

Plus, without the contributions from Britain, the pot will surely be smaller.

Ireland could benefit from an influx of research talent from Britain, as researchers seek to relocate to locations where their opportunities aren’t hampered.

That could bring a boost in funding, and knowledge.

But what might losing an often important ally from the negotiating table mean for Ireland when it comes to decisions around significant issues and policies?

Ultimately we all – Irish-based scientists and the public – benefit if British science is strong and productive.

History is littered with examples of scientific breakthroughs that were made by scientists working across the Irish Sea.

No doubt that will continue.

But it is hard not to wonder what massive scientific advances might have been inadvertently squandered by the British public’s shock decision to leave the EU.

Comments welcome via Twitter to @willgoodbody