The Joint European Torus (JET) research facility is in OxfordshireEFDA JET

A few weeks ago, the government released a position paper on British science post-Brexit to a muted fanfare. Its conclusion seems fairly positive, affirming a commitment to “strengthening collaboration with European partners in science and innovation,” as well as working towards “UK and European prosperity”. It is an excellent sentiment, but good intentions do not make up for non-substantive plans. Although hand-waving references to ‘negotiations’ and ‘dialogues’ recur throughout, concrete proposals are broadly limited to stopgap measures. Much more progress is needed if British science is not to become a shadow of its former self. But as the clock ticks down to March 2019, this seems ever more unlikely.

Innovation is certainly one of Britain’s main strengths as a nation. For a country with only 4% of the world’s researchers, 15% of the world’s most highly-cited papers were written in the UK over the period 2008-14. Groups such as Scientists for Britain argue that this intellectual dominance would allow British science to thrive in a post-Brexit world. It is, however, dangerous to rest on one’s laurels, and looking into the details reveals a murkier vision of the future.

Take Euratom, for example, which the government has already committed to leaving. This agency, which co-ordinates nuclear research across the EU, is leading the quest for efficient nuclear fusion power at sites including the JET Laboratory in Oxfordshire. The position paper commits to fully funding the site for a year after Brexit, but what happens after 2020 is unclear. Results at JET are integral to the development of fusion energy, which has the potential to meet global energy demands with minimal environmental impact. Yet progress could see a severe setback if the government is unable to secure a smooth transition. With access both to nuclear materials and skilled scientists likely to become more restricted after Brexit, Britain’s negotiators face an immense task with potentially global repercussions.

More generally there is the case of Horizon 2020, an EU programme that provides nearly £70bn for scientific innovation across the member countries. Britain is a net beneficiary of EU investment to the tune of £3bn each year, with recipients including 318 teams at Cambridge alone. Following Brexit, Britain will, at best, be reduced to secondary membership: still required to pay in, while rescinding all ability to decide on the recipients, putting British research on the back foot. On the other hand, there is an increasingly plausible scenario in which we leave without this kind of deal. Although the government has guaranteed funding over the transitional period in such a situation, after a few years funding will all be subject to the vagaries of the Budget. Either outcome could seriously imperil the cutting-edge research currently being pursued in both Britain’s industries and its universities.

In the long term, it will be in research and development that Brexit’s effects will be most apparent. While it could take decades for its ultimate effects to transpire, it can be said even now that scientific progress thrives on collaboration and stability, not on confrontation and uncertainty; hostile, isolationist government positioning is more likely to bring about the latter than the former. Whatever one thinks about EU regulations, it must be remembered that the laws of science apply equally on either side of the Channel

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