Protecting UK science and research

14 June 2019

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Chair of the Russell Group and Principal of University of Glasgow, explains why UK research should not suffer financially as a result of Brexit.

Over the coming weeks we will continue to hear a lot about the USPs of the Tory leadership hopefuls. Campaign teams will be keen to differentiate their candidates, but is this the right approach? The next prime minister’s most important job will be bridge-building across a divided party, parliament and country. The winner’s ability to govern effectively will depend on pursuing a more consensual politics than their predecessor. It would be enlightened and surprising for the contenders to identify the big issues behind which they and their opponents can unite.


An obvious one should be science. Or, rather, the ambition to boost the UK’s impressive place as a world leader in research and innovation. The UK’s capacity for discovery is an unequivocal success story. Looking just at Russell Group universities, over 80 per cent of the research we conduct meets the highest standards of international excellence.


Most importantly, it transforms our society, be it through pioneering work on graphene, now the thinnest, lightest material known to man; life-changing treatments for cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression and diabetes; or the cutting-edge technologies and behavioural insights which can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.


On all these breakthroughs and many more you will find the fingerprints of researchers based here in the UK.


But not exclusively. Our greatest discoveries are so often achieved through international collaborations, in which cross-border teams pool their expertise and resources to tackle global challenges at scale. Here the UK excels: by bringing together our twin traditions of cooperation and curiosity, we have made ourselves a sought-after partner for top academics around the world. While we rightly work with nations across the globe, and are seeking to deepen and broaden these ties, we collaborate most frequently with our EU partners. In the last few years, the UK published nearly double the number of scientific papers with EU countries than it did with the US.


So, does this mean the future of UK research hangs on the next prime minister’s position on Brexit? There is no doubt that a deal would be the best outcome for science, guaranteeing our uninterrupted participation in major research projects and ensuring we can continue to attract international talent. However, even a Prime Minister willing to court the unpalatable prospect of no deal could still seek to associate to Horizon Europe, the EU’s €100 billion research programme, which will commence in 2021. Non-EU countries can participate, as is already the case with Israel and Switzerland, and the European Commission has been keen to promote the new programme as “open to the world”. All Tory leadership rivals should therefore be able to send an early signal to Brussels that they are committed to the UK taking part, no matter where they stand on the deal question.


The same commitment will be needed from whomever they choose as chancellor. Sceptics warn that the cost of joining Horizon Europe will be too high. This figure will be up for negotiation, and no one is expecting the Treasury to write a blank cheque.


Whatever Brexit brings, British science can thrive – if the next PM shows enough political will.


Originally published by the Daily Telegraph.

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