Can British science survive Brexit?

26 July 2016

Interview with

Venki Ramikrishnan, The Royal Society

Last month, in case you somehow managed to miss it, the UK voted to leave the BrexitEU. Now the dust has settled a bit, conversations are starting up around what this means for things like UK research. And this week a number of the country's leading scientific institutions have issued a joint statement setting out what what they regard as the priorities needed to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in the scientific arena. Chris Smith went to see Venki Ramakrishnan, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and current president of the Royal Society, which is one of the entities behind this week's statement...

Venki - Before Brexit, the science community received quite a lot of funding from the EU; it amounts to about 10% of academic research funding and it turns out that British scientists are actually very successful. So we get back more from the EU than proportionally we would have put in to the EU science programmes. That's not true of the overall contribution to the EU budget but I'm simply talking about the science part.

Chris - And that 10%, to give people some perspective, how much is that worth in monetary terms?

Venki - I think it's about 6 billion or so!

Chris - That's a big slug of money!

Venki - It's a big chunk of money but it is 10%. But what I would say is that more than the money, the EU allowed British scientists to be part of large networks, large scale collaborations, big science that couldn't be done in any one country or by a small team. And it's these networks and collaborations that we think are even more important than the funding itself.

Chris - So there are two challenges immediately to surmount here. One is that we do potentially face a 10% drop in funding in science in the short term at least in the UK, but the other is access to these wider European networks. Why would they necessarily be closed to Britain then?

Venki - Well, if you want to be a full participant and you want to be part of the single market, then they'd require full mobility. And Switzerland, for instance, had a referendum in which they didn't want to include Croatia in the free mobility into Switzerland and the EU responded very promptly by cutting them off from many of the EU science programmes. Now those programmes have been temporarily restored while Switzerland and the EU are negotiating but, my view is that given what has happened since with Brexit, the EU will not be predisposed to making things easy.

Chris - I was going to say are we not looking at this in a slightly oneway street view in the sense that Britain is a major player scientifically in the World, and especially in Europe. Therefore it's also going to hurt Europe to ostracize the UK, isn't it?

Venki - Precisely, and so so what I'm hoping is that our EU partners put pressure on their governments, as much as we try to persuade our own, so that some common sense agreement can be reached so that we can continue to be part of an EU wide scientific activity, which will benefit both of the rest of the EU and Britain.

Chris - If one looks at the big scale projects in Europe; things like the Large Hadron Collider, which has investment from multiple entities across the European Union, actually that's not under the direct jurisdiction of the EU, is it? So actually, they couldn't turn round to us and say -  well you're not in the club you can't now be part of the LHC?

Venki - You're absolutely right! So things like CERN and the European Space Agency, they're all outside of the EU in the sense that they're autonomous organisations; they're funded by member states and, in fact, they have membership outside Europe, But the reality is that the EU actually funds programmes for scientists to get together to plan some of the use of these large facilities and so on, and it's these participatory networks that we could be shut out of.

Chris - You're the President of the Royal Society - have you had Downing Street or equivalent on the phone to you saying  - what do we do about this?

Venki - We have had conversations. I've had a letter that was copied to me from the Prime Minister's Office. I've had discussions with various people and there does seem to be a general agreement that science is very important to the UK and they intend to try and make it work. So I would say I am cautiously optimistic at this stage that this government is very well aware of the importance of science and innovation, and, in fact, in a post Brexit environment, I would argue that if we want to thrive as an economy it becomes even more important because we don't necessarily have a guaranteed arrangement as we would have had within the EU. And so, I'm hopeful that the government will act in a way that tries to preserve these interactions, tries to preserve our ability to recruit some of the best talent, both from Europe and around the World, and also make sure that the overall science funding is preserved. Because after all, if the argument that the Brexit people made that we would save money by leaving the EU, well some of that money could go back into science.

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