Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
Brexit will hurt world-class science in the UK;  throwing money at it doesn't help

The UK receives more money for research from the EU – £8.8bn between 2007 and 2013 – than it contributes (£5.4bn for the same period). Fortunately, that shortfall is a relatively easy problem to solve by throwing money around, and the UK government has done just that, as a new report from the House of Lords entitled A time for daring: EU membership and British science after the referendum notes. Importantly, this boldness comes in the form of new money: “It is an additional commitment from the Treasury to guarantee EU research funding.”

However, the report also points out that “guarantees of funding are welcome, but if they expire and are not replaced, it would undermine some of the benefits of the big increase announced in the Fall 2016 statement.” In other words, the UK government’s commitment to make up the shortfall must be long-term if it is to be effective.

The House of Lords committee also believes that money is the answer to the much more thorny problem of how to continue to attract the best foreign scientists to work in a post-Brexit UK. The solution, the report argues, is “searching around the world for outstanding scientific leaders and luring them to the UK with attractive offers of research funding for their first 10 years in the UK and support for their immediate families when they settle in the UK.” settle. .”

There are two elements here. First, lots of dosh, or “appealing offers of research funding” to put it in a less vulgar way. Secondly, there is the promise of “support for their immediate families when they settle in the UK”. Translated, that essentially means that they will be given exemptions from any restrictions on freedom of movement imposed as a result of Brexit.

The fact that the second component is seen as an indispensable part of the offer exposes the fundamental flaw in thinking that British science can simply work its way out of post-Brexit problems in attracting top talent.

Perhaps that would work for managers, whose main metric is how much they earn, but researchers are rarely this corruptible. Yes, they want compensation that recognizes their academic status, but usually they also want a place that provides a stimulating and pleasant environment to work and live in. Promises to ease visa arrangements for their families is probably not enough in a country where hate crimes have “increased” in the wake of the Brexit vote.

It is possible that the level of xenophobia in the UK is on the decline, although we don’t know because police chiefs have decided they will no longer collect weekly figures on such crimes. But the fact that people have apparently been killed for speaking a foreign language will undoubtedly have a long-term impact on how the UK is perceived outside the country. If there is even the slightest risk of your children being attacked in the street just because they speak their native language, you are unlikely to put that aside just because you get paid a few quid extra.

The situation will be made much worse by the UK government’s plans to limit the number of foreign students coming to the UK. This will undoubtedly reduce the revenues of British universities, with knock-on effects for research departments and thus the opportunity to attract top scientists.

It will also add to the sense that the UK is no longer a welcoming place for foreign students, leading some of the world’s brightest young minds to opt for other universities, already vying fiercely for their favour. All in all, the result will be an impoverishment of university life in the UK – economically, intellectually and culturally – another reason why the world’s best researchers will relocate.

Boris Johnson addresses supporters at a rally for the
Enlarge / Boris Johnson addresses supporters at a rally for the “Vote Leave” campaign.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been a major part of the Leave campaign and continues to guide UK government policy is an obvious reason why Brexit inevitably makes it so difficult to attract top foreign scientists. But there is a more subtle problem that is also revealed in the House of Lords report.

Assuming UK academics are still welcome as research partners despite early fears of exclusion, that would require “the generality of UK scientific regulation to remain harmonized with that of the post-Brexit EU”, as the new report points out . Without such harmonisation, it will become more difficult to collaborate with post-Brexit British researchers, and EU academics may decide that it is not worth the effort.

EU regulation is one of the key areas where the UK needs to “take back control”, Brexiters stress. However, that is not compatible with optimal scientific cooperation, which means that the British government will have to choose what has priority.

The House of Lords report calls for ‘courage’ and does its best to present a bright, upbeat vision for the future of academic research in the UK. But it cannot hide the fundamental incompatibility of Brexit with the way modern top-class science is conducted: as part of a global, limitless pursuit, with knowledge and people flowing freely between projects. That means the harder Brexit, the worse it will be for British science. And no amount of money will be able to buy us out of there.

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By akfire1

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