The BrExit Threat to British Science

After a couple of days away dealing with some personal business I’ve now time to make a few comments about the ongoing repercussions following last week’s referendum vote to Leave the European Union.

First of all on the general situation. Legally speaking the referendum decision by itself changes nothing at all. Referendums have no constitutional status in the United Kingdom and are not legally binding. The Prime Minister David Cameron has declined to activate (the now famous) Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which would initiate a two-year negotiated withdrawal, preferring to leave this to whomever succeeds him following his resignation. None of the likely contenders for the unenviable position of next Prime Minister seems keen to pull the trigger very quickly either. The United Kingdom therefore remains a member of the European Union and there is no clear picture of when that might change.

The rest of the European Union obviously wants the UK to leave as soon as possible, not just because we’ve indicated that we want to, but because  we have always been never been very committed or reliable partners. In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker: ‘It is not an amicable divorce, but it was not an intimate love affair anyway.’

I don’t blame the 27 remaining members for wanting us to get on with getting out, because uncertainty is bad for business. Two years is more than enough time for big European businesses to write British producers out of their supply chains and for international companies now based in the United Kingdom to relocate to continental Europe. The current gridlock at Westminster merely defers this inevitable exodus. In the meantime inward investment is falling as companies defer decisions on future plans, casting a planningblight over the UK economy.

My own view, however, is that the longer the UK waits before invoking Article 50 the greater the probability that it will never be invoked at all.  This is because the next PM – probably Boris Johnson – surely knows that he will simply not be able to deliver on any of the promises he has made.

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people. There won’t be £350 million per week extra for the NHS either, because our GDP is falling and we never sent £350 million anyway.  All the possible deals will be so obviously far worse than the status quo that I don’t think Parliament will ever pass legislation to accept a situation is so clearly against the national interest. I may be wrong, of course, but I think the likeliest scenario is that the referendum decision is kicked into the long grass for at least the duration of the current Parliament.

That doesn’t solve the issue of BrExit blight, however. Which brings me to British science in a possible post-BrExit era. It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

It has been guaranteed that funding commitments will be honoured until the end of Horizon 2020, but that assumes that holders of such grants don’t leave the UK taking the grants with them. I know of four cases of this happening already. They won’t come back even if we’re still in the European Union then.

Another probable outcomes are that:

  1. the shrinking economy will cause the UK government to abandon its ring-fence on science funding, which will  lead to cuts in domestic provision also;
  2. a steep decline in EU students (and associated income) will halt the expansion of UK science departments, and may cause some to shrink or even close;
  3. non-UK EU scientists working in the UK decide to leave anyway because the atmosphere of this country has already been poisoned by xenophobic rhetoric.

British science may “endure” after BrExit but it definitely won’t prosper. What is the least bad solution, if we cannot remain?

Answers through the comments box please!




19 Responses to “The BrExit Threat to British Science”

  1. Greek option: Have a general election soon and if an anti-Brexit party wins then they just ignore the referendum outcome and don’t trigger article 50.

  2. Reblogged this on Disturbing the Universe and commented:
    Can’t disagree with much here. Things look bleak.

    One thing but addressed is the issue of UK scientists who are UK citizens leaving to seek more and more secure funding elsewhere, leading to a new brain drain.

    The days of making the UK the best place to do science seem far away…

  3. ProfGrumpy Says:

    I do not disagree with your analysis. However, my greater fear, beyond even the economic carnage and the science funding, is the rise of the anti-intellectual, anti-expert, anti-science philosophy. It undermines society at its core, will prevent progress, and will affect us in every way imaginable. It’s worse too.. as it’s a mentality that takes away our weapons to combat it, as those weapons use logic and it dismisses logic.

    My only ‘hope’ is that the disaster is so great that sense again prevails. And that depresses me.

    • dbrown_astro Says:

      This is one of my major concerns too. We’ve already started to see the rise of this way of thinking (the anti-vaccination movement, for example), but this referendum really seemed to kickstart it as an acceptable way of behaving. When ministers start talking about ‘not trusting experts’, I think it legitimises it and makes it much harder to combat.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Depends on the subject. Do you trust forecasts by economists?

      • dbrown_astro Says:

        In general terms yes, much the same way that I trust weather forecasts in general terms. In both cases the subject is difficult to forecast, but those making the forecasts have far more knowledge than I, and hence are making a more informed forecast than I would.

        But to completely mistrust them *purely because they are experts* seems to me to be a ridiculous stance.

      • Adrian Burd Says:

        Just look over to the US to see where you are heading. If there’s any silver lining in the Brexit fiasco, it’s that voters over here are re-thinking their support for Trump.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Well, Dr Brown, I refer you to numerous satirical comments about economic forecasting by our host here.

      • telescoper Says:

        The problem with economic forecasts is that they often appear to be self-fulfilling. It doesn’t matter so much whether you or I believe but whether the people that control the flow of money do…

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yes, it’s as much game theory as probability theory.

  4. I agree with many of your points. People with ERC grants will be easy targets for other countries and some will leave. Science funding may suffer, unless the balance between student finance and science changes (maybe universities could exist on lower fees? How many new buildings do we need?). Perhaps this silly VAT on scientific collaboration could be cancelled? As for EU students, that is a separate issue. It is up to us how much we charge EU students, whether they qualify for postgraduate studentships, etc. Xenophobia is a big risk factor. Here the government could be helpful and take students out of the immigration targets (they should not have been in there anyway, it will improve immigration numbers and help the UK).

  5. “The rest of the European Union obviously wants the UK to leave as soon as possible, not just because we’ve indicated that we want to, but because we have always been never been very committed or reliable partners.”

    Another reason is to prevent other countries from leaving, or threatening to do so, in the hope of negotiating some sort of special deal (of which the UK has negotiated a few). This is also why there is absolutely no way the UK will able to negotiate something better than the current status. This does not rule out access to the common market (some other non-EU countries have it), but only if there is freedom not only of goods, but also people, services, and money.

    “There won’t be £350 million per week extra for the NHS either, because our GDP is falling and we never sent £350 million anyway.”

    Just the recent reduction of the credit rating means more than £350 million per week in extra interest!

  6. I think it is pretty clear that if article 50 is invoked, or if it is not clear if it will be invoked, that Scotland will leave the UK and quickly join the EU. Maybe even Northern Ireland will join Eire. 🙂 As long as the remains of the UK take no action, things will become worse and worse, in many ways. If the government does not invoke article 50, various groups will blame the problems on the EU and eventually a Brexit government (maybe UKIP) will take charge.

  7. […] astrophysicist Peter Coles is one of those who think it possible Brexit may never happen. That’s because the politicians who backed it know they can never keep their promises. But if […]

  8. […] astrophysicist Peter Coles is one of those who think it possible Brexit may never happen. That’s because the politicians who backed it know they can never keep their promises. But if it […]

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