The Landscape for Science post Brexit

As a European expat and scientist in England, I have had a thought or two on the current political situation.

Many scientists worry that UK based researchers will be excluded from a significant portion of funding opportunities and risk being excluded from EU collaboration opportunities. Several scientific organisations have reported on the matter. The Royal Society of Biology, The Biochemical Society and others. Post Referendum, a number of international collaborations have been quick to point out their independence from EU legislation, and to communicate that the future will be business as usual. This may be the intention, but today, it is hard to foresee whether this is wishful thinking or not. About a month after the British Referendum, the UK Parliament held a Parliament Links Day to communicate political plans to support UK science post-Brexit.

As very often in Britain, the message was “Keep calm”.

However, when the concrete facts are unclear, this message is not as reassuring as it could be. Britain is now in Limbo and the uncertainty is what makes the market shun the British pound. Practically, nothing has changed, and in the near future nothing will change, as current scientific collaborations already in place will not be affected. Since these commonly operate on a timeframe of two years or longer, it will likely be several years before any concrete effects of a Brexit will be seen, even if Article 50 was invoked today. The effect is all in the change of expectations.

The UK has, and will likely continue to have a strong position in large scientific projects. The effects on Brain Drain – the emigration of skilled work force or the lack of immigration of the same is harder to control and negotiate than involvement in large, pan-European projects. As is the involvement in smaller transnational collaborations.

The science of today is based heavily on the same freedom of movement as the Brexit intends to intercept. Will there be an exception for people in a scientific profession? How would that translate a message of equality to other groups of society?

A multitude of projects in the scientific community are now operating in the exact opposite direction as the British Government – towards higher integration, connectivity and collaboration, and it is a well founded opinion among scientists that further integration is needed in order to keep Europe on the forefront of global scientific efforts. UK has a leading position in several of these projects: ESA, ESS, CERN, EOSC.

At the Parliament Links Day, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who suggested the government ought to funnel the money they would ‘save’ from not being in the EU into science funding. That would mean a doubling of UK science funding, which today is less than 0.5% of GDP. If this will outweigh the setback of diminished communication remains to be seen. 44% of international research collaboration in the UK is with a European partner, and British higher education receive 16% of research income from the EU.

If a political break with the European Union will take place, the channels for Open Science and Open Data which are being constructed for scientific purposes will be more important than ever for the UK to keep up with European exchange. As it has often done before, science offers an alternative network to that of the politics world, which stresses even more the importance for Britain to strengthen its private collaborative efforts. If that was so, Brexit could paradoxically lead to more collaboration, integration and exchange of trade, knowledge and labour than before.

Digital services are not subject to tariffs and tolls the same way as physical goods. As digital is becoming more and more important, the awkwardness of imposing tolls on physical goods is becoming more and more hard to explain. Free trade is less and less about releasing market as it is about equalizing markets. For a country outside any free-trade treaties, the digital market provides a breathing-hole. In a broken up EU, open access, open science and open data will be critical to continued research. If nationality now drives politics in the EU, open science strives in the opposite direction. Luckily, the web is yet free of national borders.

The question is:
In a word where more and more takes place on the internet, free of borders, is it possible to keep those borders in the physical world?

Featured image credit: CupsUK

Anna Leida Mölder
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