'All too easy' to see how Brexit harms research

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The UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) goes against the natural development of scholarly and scientific research.

Collaboration has always aided the progress of research, and it’s now considered critical to success as technological and social barriers are lowered across the world. So when looking at the impact of Brexit on the research community – and the STM industry which depends on it – one must start by acknowledging the UK is now moving in a direction opposite to the interests of researchers.

Of course, it’s only two weeks since the UK’s vote to leave. But even a brief look at past and present suggests there will be negative consequences for research and education. Some of these can be measured in money or research outputs while others are less tangible but no less important.

Much has been written about the negative funding outlook for a UK divorced from the EU, including analyses by theHouse of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee and my colleagues atDigital Science, which both show the UK is a net beneficiary of EU research spending. But when looking at the impact of Brexit on research in general and the STM sector in particular, those figures only tell part of the story.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of solely domestic-authored papers in the UK has remained static while those with international collaborators hasgrown ten-fold. Of these, more than half were published with EU researchers. Countries may not be in an economic and political union to enjoy productive collaboration, but this trend shows it is clearly a major advantage. Further, the EU’s Horizon 2020 framework for Research and Innovation deliberately favours collaborative projects, which has already caused some EU researchers to shy away from UK partners. This aggravates the funding dilemma as it will be even harder for UK scientists to get European Research Council support.

Free movement of people make work and life far easier for researchers and the institutions, funders and other stakeholders that support them. Right now a promising student can aim to attend any university across 28 member countries with no legal or political barriers. Researchers can travel or relocate as needed for their projects. Publishers can easily assemble and run multi-national teams, while research software firms can more easily find and hire talented talented staff. Without freedom of movement, this mobility can’t continue.

Likewise, aligned standards for data exchange, privacy policies and funding also help. The EU has encouraged member states to move toward shared visions and policies to improve research efficiency, transparency and access. While progress can be halting and frustrating, it is being made. As an example few would question the role Europe plays in supporting the Open Access movement and the benefits this has brought to researchers, educators and students. EU member states can influence policy discussions on Open Data, research assessment, data mining, fair use and copyright, while those on the outside can only obey the resulting directives, something UK publishers are no doubt keenly aware of.

Just as the UK has benefitted from the EU’s progressive attitude to environmental protection and social welfare, so it has from EU priorities around research funding. Even if the UK were not a net beneficiary of European spending on research, there is no guarantee a British government would allocate the same proportion of funds to make up the coming shortfall. Similarly, would the UK channel the same level of resource to basic research as opposed to the focus on applied, commercial outcomes that we are seeing in the US and Australia?

Those who believe the Brexit campaigners’ promise to direct 100 per cent of the mythical £350 million per week solely toward the NHS are in for grave disappointment. Those in the research communityare under no such illusions – a UK government suffering the economic strains of Brexit won’t have the political will to replicate European funding. Pretending otherwise is to ignore reality.

Further, with the UK no longer part of the EU family, European states will likely become more aggressive when competing for funding or talent. The day after Brexit, officials in Berlin were openly courting London entrepreneurs and start-up companies. Others point to opportunities for Europe indata centre hosting andfinancial markets. Those who assume the UK will easily remain in the single market forget that – in addition to wanting to make it difficult for others to leave – EU member states may see an opportunity to gain competitive advantages in technology, finance, funding, hiring talent, competing for government contracts, etc. The UK, and the institutions and publishers based here, may find they’ve been enjoying a more cooperative, collaborative business and regulatory environment than might have been appreciated.

Those involved in scholarly research and communication can be quite resourceful and adept at finding ways around bureaucracy, spending limits and other artificial barriers to progress. So too will they adapt to the self-inflicted wound that is Brexit. But it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where it benefits research, and all too easy to see where it harms it.


Nicko Goncharoff is chief business development officer at Digital Science