UK politics are a little bit difficult to keep up with at the moment. In the space of a few days we’ve gone from having several possible candidates for prime minister to finally having only one. And that person is Theresa May.
Changes in prime minister are carried out incredibly quickly in the UK, we can expect Theresa May will be in the top job in a couple of days. What is uppermost in my mind is what Brexit means for science and research in the UK.
Theresa May isn’t a scientist, unlike Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher originally studied Chemistry at Oxford. And in actual fact she was reportedly more proud of becoming the first prime minister with a science degree than the first female prime minister.
Margaret Thatcher supported the setup of the IPCC and although cautious of climate change evidence at the time, this was 1988 after all, she supported good scientific research on environmental issues. Her speech to the Royal Society gives you a good overview of this support.
What can we expect from Theresa May?
She has already stated that Brexit means Brexit, to achieve this, Theresa May has said that she will set up a team to decide and negotiate what relationship the UK will have with the EU.
But what’s not being talked about is the model for UK research and development post Brexit, but to be honest it didn’t feature much pre Brexit either. This is both a shame and a mistake. European cooperation and coordination in innovation, science and research was one of the great positives for Britain. Also innovation, science and research is one of the great strengths of the UK economy decoupling that from Europe is a huge loss to Europe and to the UK.
The benefit to a free flowing European research community can not be overstated. With no visas to apply for or points system to overcome, top scientific talent can form across borders to tackle some of the most challenging problems we are facing as a society. The best laboratories can cooperate with universities, industry and small businesses to develop innovative solutions to our global problems.
My worry is that these benefits will be lost in the coming exit negotiations.
Theresa May has already said that article 50 won’t be invoked until the end of 2016. Which means that involvement in Horizon 2020 and funding instruments will continue unchanged until at least the end of 2018.
But we do already have some idea of what Theresa May will be expecting the new relationship to look like. The most concerning thing for Horizon 2020 is that she has already stated that immigration and free movement can’t continue in its current form.
“while the ability to trade with EU member states is vital to our prosperity, there is clearly no mandate for a deal that involves accepting the free movement of people as it has worked hitherto” – Theresa May Leadership speech
If Theresa May and her new negotiating team are gong to achieve this, they are going to have to accept some trade offs. Although the EU has been vocal in suggesting that the UK can’t have an a la carte access to the single market, a compromise could be restrictions on free movement based on restricted access to the single market. And if the UK restricts free movement then access to Horizon 2020 will most likely be restricted as well.
When Switzerland voted to restrict free movement a renegotiated partial model had to be adopted while the Swiss sought a solution. And even though the Swiss recently voted to ratify a treaty granting workers from Croatia access to the Swiss labour market, it still has several hurdles to go before it is accepted into law. And the EU remains clear, however: only when the Croatia protocol comes into effect can Switzerland regain access to full research funding.
The message to Switzerland has always been clear, no free movement, no Horizon 2020.
The current size of the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020 is also an issue
In a excellent analysis before the referendum Dr Mike Galsworthy and Dr Rob Davidson explored the potential pitfalls of a model similar to Switzerland’s. The Swiss make a contribution to the Horizon 2020 budget based on the size of their GDP and population. If the UK were to buy back in the size of its population and the size of economy may mean that the UK is paying in more than it currently does.
But the UK leads in participation of Horizon 2020 winning more grants than any other country during Horizon 2020 so far. This could also create problems for the UK and other EU members. If the UK was accepted as an associated country in some form, then the leading member in science will no longer have a say in the formation of EU science and research policy.
This isn’t really the best situation for the UK nor the EU, and one that might prompt calls for the UK to have even more restricted access.
An unknown quantity when it comes to science
Theresa May has a record of voting against measures that prevent climate change and improve the environment you can see the list here. I’m not sure that this is due to a lack of the understanding of the science, but more to do with the financial risk to business and the economy of climate change policies. Overall May has been largely silent when it comes to climate change and generally she hasn’t really shown her love or lack thereof of science and research.
The support for a continued and strong UK involvement in Horizon 2020 will come down to politics and economics. From an Economic argument in a shrinking UK economy committing to more spending on science makes sense, and could go some way to mitigating the long term effects of brexit.
But the importance of this argument isn’t being made, and it wasn’t made before the referendum. Even more than before we need to be making the economic argument for a continued and unrestricted access to Horizon 2020 for the UK.
Will Theresa May be making that case to the UK and the EU?
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