Brexit is a challenge for the scientific community

The UK must safeguard its academic and research cooperation with the EU beyond Brexit, writes Clare Moody.

By Clare Moody

05 May 2017

Clare Moody | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

The essence of modern day science is collaboration. We work together, we exchange information and we compare data. The United Kingdom has embraced and reaped the benefits of being engaged in the largest and most ambitious research area in the world.

The European Union’s framework programmes for science and innovation have conducted research into cancer, produced new vaccines to fight Ebola, and have explored the heart of atomic matter. Member states and citizens across Europe, and indeed the world, have benefitted from this collaborative research into some of our most challenging issues.

However, Brexit represents serious challenges for the scientific community in the UK and across Europe. The research sector relies on the collaboration that has been facilitated by the freedom of movement and thought that is embedded in the EU.


Beyond this, withdrawing from the Euratom treaty could impact on our nuclear industry, affecting not just nuclear power, but also nuclear materials used in the treatment of cancer.

In a time of austerity, one of the first things that gets cut is investment in scientific causes.

It has been the EU, with the focus and financial stability that the MFF delivers, which has been the champion of ‘science for science’s sake’, providing seven-year stable investment programmes to support research and researchers.

But UK withdrawal from the Union could mean that we are excluded from these programmes in the future unless we agree some sort of deal. The UK government has prioritised research and innovation, but to deliver on this promise it must prioritise our continued relationship with the EU in this area in the negotiations.

It isn’t just about universities and students who benefit from EU research funding. Airbus and Rolls Royce in the UK and dozens of other companies employing tens of thousands of workers benefit from EU funding to develop new materials and technologies and to build for the future.

The government needs to work to protect both the jobs and the innovation that are supported by this collaboration and to continue to grow UK industries with our European neighbours.

But this isn’t entirely a one-way street. The UK has some deep and lasting roots in research that have made it a valuable partner in a number of programmes. The expressions of support for the UK’s continued involvement in Horizon 2020 have been a testament to the signifi cance of the relationships that have been built up over many, many years.

The countdown has begun on negotiations for the UK’s withdrawal and the challenge that Brexit poses cannot be underestimated.

First, will the UK government acknowledge the enormous contribution EU membership has brought its universities and industries?

Second, will the UK government recognise the contribution of EU citizens as students, technicians, research staff and professors in its universities and beyond? To place barriers in the way of this world class research would be detrimental to all citizens, and the UK government must focus on cooperation to get the best possible deal for the science and research sector.

To this end, I have pressed government ministers and civil servants on these points during the last nine months. We cannot afford for world class researchers and students to go elsewhere, the knowledge and experience that has been built up benefits us all.

There is a huge amount at stake in all areas of the Brexit negotiations and, as the British expression goes, ‘the devil is in the detail’. The negotiations about the UK’s exit from the EU - even before we get to what a future deal may look like - is fraught with these details. However, as another British expression goes, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water.

There is huge amount of mutual appreciation and collaboration that has been built up in the field of research between the UK and the EU and, perhaps, this could be an area in which both sides could remember previous cooperation and work to maintain this relationship into the future.


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