Science and Brexit - what next?

11 February 2020

Interview with 

James Wilsdon, University of Sheffield


Europe map with brexit letters and scissors


To Brexit now and the question of to what extent departing the EU will affect UK science. James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, and he spoke with Chris Smith...

James - Although of course the UK left Europe, as of last Friday at 11 o'clock, science is one of those areas where, of course, we've had traditionally over the last 30-40 years a very strong and growing set of connections. We take in the UK just shy of 1 billion euros a year of funding from different European sources towards research. Around 60% of all the UK's internationally co-authored papers are with European collaborators, and 13 of the 20 countries with which the UK collaborates most intensively are in the European Union. So these connections are very important to the overall health and vitality of the UK science innovation system. What we need to know as the science community is, well where does all that stand out the end of this next 11 months? And that's the thing that is still somewhat up in the air.

Chris - Of course, the flip side of all of this, you're saying, well a billion, that's a significant amount of funding. On the other hand, that does mean, given that we spend maybe 9 billion a year on research in this country, that that's only about 10%. So you could say, well actually, 90% of the expenditure is the UK already and we're not seeking to reduce that are we?

James - No, that's a fair point. And actually it's even less than that because a fair portion of European money isn't going into the academic research base, but into R&D collaboration with industry. So you need to put the billion a year from Europe into the 30 billion that we spend in the UK as a combination of both public money and private sector R&D, which brings it down to about 3% of the total. That, as you say, doesn't sound a great deal. But if we go back into the academic domain, there are quite uneven patterns of that spending. There are certain scientific disciplines, for example software engineering, archaeology, and various others where the proportion of total research money can be as high as 30%, added to which you've got all of the additional benefits that come from being part of these collaborative networks. It's wrong to see it just as a matter of pounds, shillings and pence as it were. We need to see it also as a matter of the opportunity to participate in often large scale projects, which are increasingly where the real engine of contemporary science is. It's often these larger scale, more collaborative projects, which are doing much of the most cutting edge work.

Chris - The UK has been a very big investor though in some European collaborative projects. Things like the LHC, various genetics initiatives that exist in Europe, but they're not actually EU initiatives. So there's nothing to stop us continuing with those collaborations to continue to invest in those collaborations and to continue to reap rewards from them, presumably?

James - Yes. So CERN, as you say, where the Large Hadron Collider is based is a good example of a collaborative endeavour which sits outside, or at least above, the structures of the European Union and there are indeed others. So it's not the only show in town, but of course given geographic proximity and given the existence of pan-European funding schemes for such a long period, and the fact that those have been built up progressively to become what I think on any reckoning is the most effective funding instrument for international collaboration in research, removing oneself from those networks in their entirety would be at the very least a rather self-defeating move.

Chris - It does work both ways though, doesn't it? Because you know, Britain is a powerhouse, scientifically speaking. We are the go-to people for certain aspects and certain elements of science. So it would certainly be in the EU's interest to want to talk.

James - Oh absolutely. And that's of course the message that's coming across loud and clear from our scientific collaborators in European universities and research funders. And of course the message that's coming from the UK system. So I think that argument is well made. The challenge is just getting there and there have been good attempts to try and work out how we do this. There was a very helpful report that came out last week from the Wellcome Trust, which actually reported on a sort of simulated version of the negotiation process. So they got experts from both sides in a room and kind of ran the negotiations on science as if they were really happening. Really to try and see whether one could reach an agreement on science as a specific area of focus, sort of off to one side of the wider trade and economic negotiations. And you know, that of course remains an option. One could sort of decouple the science piece from the bigger discussion and just try and deal with that over here given it's an area where there's high degree of consensus. The difficulty again comes in whether there's the sort of political will to do that in the wider political context of these talks.

Chris - What about collaborations beyond Europe though? Or are they already maxed out? Can we not just say, well look, there are plenty of other extremely scientifically powerful countries, Australia, America, the far East, there are plenty of other potential collaborators out there, we'll just work with them instead?

James - Well indeed, this is of course another way through this if we can't resolve the European question. Of course, it's not a zero sum game and ideally you have a collaborative science system that is connected both to your more immediate neighbours in Europe and also to all of the countries you mentioned. And there's no reason why that can't be achieved. But yes, if you can't resolve the European question, you could of course look for ways of scaling up the volume of collaborative work with the United States and with other big research economies, including those you mentioned like Australia and Canada. So there are lots of possibilities. The UK actually has been doing quite a lot, separate from the whole Brexit debate, already to scale up collaboration through various funding lines, particularly in terms of collaborations with developing countries in the global South. But we start from a position where right now 60% of all internationally coauthored papers from the UK are with European authors and 13 of the 20 countries with whom we collaborate the most are in Europe. So research and research funding is not something that can kind of turn around overnight. These are big complicated systems involving lots of moving parts and you can't kind of flip it on a whim to a different orientation. We need to be I think building in all of those directions progressively over time, but we can't quickly or easily afford to lose the European piece in that jigsaw, which has been absolutely critical to the kind of scientific success that we've seen over the last few years.


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