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After “Brexit” – <em>Science</em> Editorial Suggests a Way Forward

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U.K. scientists work to blunt damage to scientific funding and collaboration in aftermath of "Brexit" vote. | David Callan/iStockphoto

An overwhelming majority of U.K. scientists opposed to the “Brexit” referendum on European Union membership, must, now that Britons voted to leave the EU, “work hard to urge policymakers to promote continued scientific collaborations,” according to an editorial in Science.

Long-standing research collaborations between British and European Union (EU) scientists suggest a starting point for rebuilding relations to support scientific advancement, wrote Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at University College London.

“One of the great strengths of U.K. science is its international culture and the recognition that the best minds, wherever they are from, can together tackle shared challenges,” wrote Reid. “Leaving the EU does not mean an end of this quality, but it requires profound changes in the practicalities behind it.”

Reid called on U.K. scientists to press policymakers in the government to help foster new and existing scientific collaborations with EU scientists and scientific organizations.

Specifically, Reid said, U.K. scientists should urge the successor to Prime Minister David Cameron to offer to host international research facilities with the EU, and to boost funding to British companies, research institutions and universities that collaborate with the EU. Cameron announced that he was stepping down by October after 52% of Britons voted on 23 June to leave the EU.

In a statement the day after the “Brexit” vote, British Academy President Nicholas Stern echoed Reid’s sentiments, saying U.K. researchers will need to search out new ways to continue to collaborate with the EU’s scientific community. “It is vital that U.K. researchers maintain access to the EU, its networks and funding streams,” Stern said.

A good deal of money is at stake, according to an April report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that examined the potential impact of a U.K. divorce from the EU. The U.K. gets more money from the EU for scientific research than it spends, and quitting the EU will leave a gap. Of the gross contribution the U.K. makes to the EU, £5.4 billion pounds, or $7.77 billion, funds research and scientific efforts. On the upside, however, the U.K. receives £8.8 billion in research grants, the report said.

Anne Glover, the European Union’s first chief science adviser and vice principal for external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen in the U.K., expressed pessimism in an 27 June interview in Science that the U.K., post-“Brexit,” can hold onto its dominance in scientific research on the world stage.

The U.K. is considered “one of the world’s leading scientific nations,” the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report said. Almost one fifth, or 18.3%, of EU funding to the U.K. goes toward research and development, meaning “science is a significant dimension of U.K.’s membership of the EU,” the report said.

Among responses to a Brexit vote, the report said, the U.K. could consider becoming an “associated country,” such as Norway and Switzerland. The designation permits non-EU member states to participate in EU-funded scientific programs and collaborative forums.

But the committee’s inquiry found “strong views” that such a status would greatly diminish the U.K.’s influence in setting scientific priorities, and said more review is needed before it is pursued.

President of the U.K.’s Royal Society Venki Ramakkrishnan also weighed in after the vote, citing in a statement the importance of the EU’s supplemental funding of U.K. research efforts, the necessity of international collaboration to further science, and the exchange of talent between the U.K. and the EU.

“In negotiating a new relationship with the EU we must ensure that we do not put unnecessary barriers in place that will inhibit collaborations,” Ramakkrishnan said.