Brexit to hit science funding

Jude Mockridge on how the UK leaving the EU impacts science and research in the country

Jude Mockridge
2nd March 2020
European science has experienced somewhat of a renaissance since the millenia, with increasingly ambitious directives, both in funding and scope, enriching research and scientific disciplines.

The UK is a powerhouse in research, by virtue of its long scientific history and excellent universities (Cambridge, for example, developed Humira which is used to treat arthritis and recently became one of the best selling drugs ever). With the threats posed to British research, which receives huge funding from EU projects, Brexit has thrust debates about science into the limelight. With many of the pertinently problematic issues of today requiring scientific solutions, the need for clarity surrounding Britain’s future in science is evident.

The UK is certain to lose out on one major research fund, falling under the funding pool of Horizon 2020: The European Research Council, which by granting funds based on excellence as opposed to thematic priorities or geographical quotas, allowing for inconceivable diversity in research. Using funding from this program, Oxford researcher Sir Peter Ratcliffe won a Nobel prize for an interdisciplinary study on cellular reactions to oxygen, already proving invaluable in cancer research. In truth, Horizon 2020 (and it’s even bigger successor, Horizon Europe), which from 2014-2020 has pooled in a projected £80.3 billion, and the source of 45% of the £5 billion received by British organisations, will be not affect Britain's practical ability to conduct groundbreaking research. The real issue lies in co-operation, which the removal of freedom of movement and stricter trade tariffs will undoubtedly compromise. Plant scientist Professor Alison Smith of Cambridge University, involved in many EU funding projects, has said that her field of algae biotech is likely to suffer. She writes “In my field you have to be able to know about engineering, regulation, and how to scale up. It’s not possible to do with just one lab”. Various others have complained that negotiations have already slowed down cooperation, and Professor Smith fears that in growing areas the UK has contributed to, we are less likely to be leaders.

However, ethically contentious scientific fields such as stem cell research, which by virtue of our relaxed laws the UK already leads on, may grow even more now free of bureaucracy. If we are to look at Israel, one of the countries receiving EU funding as an “associated member”, they have shared £1.7 billion of European cash between 3000 successful grants.

This may seem like a rosy view of our scientific future but yet one must ask, with the maximum potential for post-Brexit success being level with what we were achieving anyway, who knows where British science would have gone if red passports were perpetual?

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