Can the UK broaden its horizons in research?
Northern Ireland deal is no guarantee that UK-EU science can restart
This was posted on my blog over at Science.
Much uproar and confusion has attended the apparent loss of £1.6 billion from research in the United Kingdom owing to the inability of the government to guarantee UK collaborations with European Union (EU) researchers that are funded by Horizon Europe. The government had initially set aside £2.35 billion to fund the UK’s portion of these collaborations, but because Brexit tensions have precluded such collaborations, the unspent portion of £1.6 billion pounds was returned to the Treasury.
The outcry from British scientists was immediate and intense. Liam Smeeth, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said, “Until today, the UK government did—as a constructive interim measure—appear to be committed to filling any shortfalls in science funding that occurred because of Brexit. This appears to no longer be the case and we face major cuts in investment in science and innovation as well as continued uncertainty over EU funding.”
The government insists that the money is not lost. A federal spokesperson told Nature that “Funding remains available to finalize association with EU programs, but we have been clear that we will only pay for the periods of association. In the event we do not associate, UK researchers and businesses will receive at least as much money as they would have done from Horizon over the Spending Review period.”
Yesterday, Science posted an editorial from British science policy scholar James Wilsdon that cuts through some of the confusion. The real issue is that politicians in the UK have repeatedly referred to themselves as a “science superpower”—or at least one in the making. But is this possible if the UK can’t participate in robust collaborations with Horizon Europe? Wilsdon told me in a follow-up email that applications to the collaborative programs with Europe have already dropped off, so even if association could be reestablished, it would take years to build back the collaborations. And that would require success in both establishing a trade deal with Northern Ireland and agreement with Brussels on how the costs would be shared. So, the best to hope for, according to Wilsdon, is that the research could be back to where it was in 2 to 3 years. If none of those things happen, the UK has pledged to return the money to the overall research budget, but that will shortchange vital collaborations with Europe.
Also yesterday, Prime Minister Rushi Sunak and EU President Ursula von der Leyen agreed to terms that might break the logjam on trade with Northern Ireland. As Wilsdon says, this brings the possibility of association “tantalizingly close.” But even if it all works out, 2 to 3 years is a lot of lost science. And if it doesn’t work out and the UK government makes good on its promise to put the money back in to UK research, its funded research programs will be more isolated from the scientific strengths of Europe.
Science is a social endeavor that depends on a diverse community for success. Isolated science cannot achieve what shared science can. And scientific consensus is far more elusive in isolation. Can the UK become a science superpower if it can’t collaborate? Doubtful.