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Brexit science paper – haters gonna hate

by AprilSix Proof


The wait, it appears, is over. After a year of speculation, rumour, boasts and fear mongering the first signs of what the UK’s science and research relationship with the rest of Europe could look like post-Brexit are beginning to take shape. Or are they?

Last week the Department for Exiting the European Union (DexEU) published a paper, Collaboration on science and innovation: a future partnership paper, which outlined its vision for future partnerships between the EU and the UK on “major science, research, and technology initiatives”.

As expected the paper has garnered much debate across the media. So I decided to take a look and see whether the resulting coverage offered anything new in terms of analysis, or if the media continued to espouse the same doubts or certainties they did on Brexit and its impact on science prior to the paper’s publication.

I will start with Nature, which featured a series of responses from the sector, most of which welcomed the publication but regretted the lack of real detail. This sentiment was echoed in part by Science magazine, possibly because they both included quotes from John Wormersley, the director general of the European Spallation Source.

The award for most creative analogy must go to the New Statesman, which began by calling the paper, “conceited and forlorn” before going on to compare the document to a break up song from the pop star Taylor Swift. A comparison that might cause some Bad Blood between the magazine and David Davis’ DexEu, on the other hand they could just Shake It Off.

In a more traditional approach, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) responds to the paper with quotes from Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, who called some of the paper’s goals impossible under current European Union Law”. His quotes were also covered by Science Business and in the previously mentioned Science magazine article, showing that the media were not necessarily looking for exclusive comment on the story. In the THES Prof Deketelaere also claimed the paper ignores immigration policy and should be assessed alongside a draft Home Office report that was leaked to the Guardian at the same time.

Indeed, the Guardian covered the leaked report in a follow-up story with a specific emphasis on the science community – Scientists fear Brexit brain drain if leaked Home Office proposals implemented. In this article Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), is quoted as saying: “science collaboration needed an immigration system to match”.

The issue of immigration is one that many people pick up on, including Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation and President of the European Heart Network takes up in an article for the Huffington Post. “Scientists are increasingly looking for answers about what the future of UK science will look like,’ he said. “While the UK does not officially leave the EU until March 2019, researchers are making decisions about where to apply for funding or where to make their next career move right now.”

Yet is it realistic to expect a government paper looking only at selected, albeit highly important sectors to single them out first when it comes to future immigration policy? Probably not, and the science community may not have expected any early commitments either. Instead, the collective responses noted above all serve to remind the government of the importance of this issue through what appears to be a well-coordinated media response. The science community also knows that it is lobbying a government that is willing to listen to its appeals, as shown by the extra £4.7bn funding announced in the 2016 Autumn Statement, the largest increase in R&D by any Parliament since 1979.

In the Daily Telegraph two senior academics, Prof Angus Dalgleish, from the University of London, and Prof Gwythian Prins from the University of Cambridge, co-authored an article welcoming the new paper but highlighting how science collaboration depends on the expertise partners bring to the table and that many non-EU countries have better science collaboration with the EU than we do.

Also, in the Daily Mail, business columnist Alex Brummer stated in an interesting aside that he believed immigration is a deal that is all but done for those working in UK science. In an article on 7 September, he claimed, The Government has listened and responded to their [FTSE 100 bosses] request that room should be made for skilled immigration that is important to our engineering, financial and science-based industries.”

It did not take long for another story to hit the news agenda, one that gave a reason to be positive about the UK’s science and technology sectors post-Brexit. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph earlier this week, Bill Gates, who warned about the impact of voting to leave the EU before the Referendum, told the newspaper he thought the excellence of the UK’s scientific research could continue post-Brexit if the right care was taken. The quotes from the Microsoft founder were soon reiterated in the Daily Express and the Sun, providing the evidence that all would indeed be rosy in the UK’s post-Brexit science community. Well, that’s that all sorted then, isn’t it?

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