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Fears and hopes of UK Science and Innovation laid bare at Brexit Summit

by Vernon Hunte

Another difficult week for the Government makes it even more important that the science and innovation community identifies their own opportunities post-Brexit.

Last week the House of Commons Science and Technology convened a summit on the Brexit challenges with over 50 senior representatives of the sector taking part. The discussions were to inform the Committee’s recommendations to Government around the themes of people, collaboration, funding and regulation.

If there was any doubt before, the summit provided a useful illustration of the gap between the industry concerns and the Government’s commitment to deliver Brexit. Sam Gyimah MP, Minister for Science made a valiant effort to communicate a positive post-2019, where “Blighty” continues to punch above its weight in the world and opportunities are unlocked.

UK Science and Brexit – lots to lose, what’s to gain?

The associations and institutions present were more concerned what they will lose. In place of established systems and structures on funding (losing EU funds), skilled migration (losing access to a skilled EU workforce), regulatory alignment (losing the rules which enable pan-European research collaboration) researchers and scientists were peering into a murky post-2019 world full of unknowns.

On funding, for example, the Minister expressed his hope the UK could continue to participate in the next round of Europe research funding (Framework Programme 9) but “not at any price”. As with skills and regulations, the Minister can’t promise much whilst negotiations continue between within the Conservative Party, the UK Parliament and the corridors of powers in Brussels.

The road to hard Brexit is through Northern Ireland

The week since the summit has been another difficult one for the UK Government as the EU published its draft withdrawal agreement. Containing a provocative ‘backstop’ option on the future status of Northern Ireland the document was clearly one which the Prime Minister, whose Government is dependent upon Democratic Unionist MPs, could not accept. Unlike discussions on trade, the status of Northern Ireland leaves little room for

negotiation – the Prime Minister resists a customs union, the EU (and Irish parties) reject a hard border on the island of Ireland, and the DUP would lead the collapse the UK Government before agreeing to any border in the Irish sea.

Back in December the UK Government managed to conclude the first phase of negotiations with a commitment that there would be no ‘hard border’ in Ireland, and it is possible that the UK-EU will again be able to patch-up disagreement on this issue again. But in the absence of an agreed permanent solution, many commentators are seeing the prospect for a softer Brexit slipping away as fundamental disagreements on the border push the negotiating teams apart.

Whatever the Brexit, develop a positive post-2019 vision

Former Minister for Life Sciences, the respected George Freeman MP, made an call for Government to urgently provide clarity, especially to make sure UK science remains parts of programmes such as Horizon 2020 and avoids a ‘regulatory cliff edge’, but added “it’s also KEY that we have a Vision for UK *leading* the exciting regulatory transformation made possible by #Genomics #BigData #AcceleratedAccess”.

Unfortunately managing Brexit is an art not a science. With the outcome of negotiations entirely uncertain, organisations need to make sure they are preparing their own vision and identifying opportunities in the new landscape. With a year left to go there its lots for UK science and industry lobby for in the final settlement, but with a view on the longer term reality – the UK standing outside of formal EU structures and systems – Government and the Labour Party will be most receptive where that lobbying is supplemented with other ideas for how ‘Blighty’ can best develop research, market and compete globally.

The following week (on 6th March) Sam Gyimah MP, Minister for Universities, Science, Research & Innovation met with the Science and Technology Committee again to address questions raised at the Brexit summit, this was part of the Committee’s latest evidence session for its inquiry into Brexit, science and innovation. The session and its output fuelled further debate in the media, particularly around the Minister’s statement that the UK wanted to participate in future European research programmes “…but not at any price”. Research Fortnight and THES both ran articles including worried responses from ministers including  committee chairman Norman Lamb and the Conservative MP Vicky Ford.  However, another witness on the day, Amanda Dickins, the deputy director for Brexit and science at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, reiterated the point made by the Science Minister, saying “it would be unwise to commit to a programme that is yet to be finalised. The full transcript from the 6th March session is available here.