UK Science and Engineering, the Brexit Effect

Ally Winning, European Editor, Power Systems Design



Some might say that Britain has been in a state of shock since the decision came to leave the EU just over a year ago. The Prime Minister who called the election has resigned, and his replacement, Theresa May, called a snap election that resulted in her Conservative party losing the slim majority that David Cameron had won two years earlier. This political paralysis has stopped the government forming a cohesive strategy to take the country out of the EU, with cabinet ministers contradicting each other on almost a weekly basis.

Many areas have started to suffer because of the current uncertainty, none more so than the science and technology field, which is perhaps the one area of the UK that has fully embraced EU membership. The depth of integration of Europe’s research has been a great achievement, with universities, corporations and research institutes, working across countries to solve tomorrow’s challenges. Although the UK government has pledged £2bn a year to the science community to make up for the loss of EU funding, money is not the entire problem, there are two other, arguably more important factors that are harder to solve.

Much of the research in Europe is driven and funded by the EU itself, sometimes with additional private funding. For example, Horizon 2020 is a programme that looks to areas that are important for European businesses and develop new solutions for these areas to keep European companies ahead of the curve. The overall programme is given to a lead, who break the problem down into individual areas, and puts them out to tender to universities across Europe. The lead also administers the programme and collates the results. These programmes are massive in scale and can sometimes have over a hundred universities, research agencies, NGOs and private companies involved. It will be hard for the UK to find a way to compensate for that expertise in this country alone.

The second hit to the scientific and technical communities from Brexit comes from the status of European citizens in the country. It is estimated that there are over 30,000 EU academics working in the UK, and many more technical and engineering staff in our workplaces. The status of citizens has proven to be a sticking point between the UK government and the EU in the negotiations so far. The UK government has proposed one solution that has already been shot down by the EU, who insist that EU citizens should lose no rights that they already possess. This situation has led to many EU academics, either returning to the EU, or planning to in the near future. Some UK academics are also looking to leave the country to stay at the bleeding edge of research. 2010’s Nobel prize winner for physics, Andre Geim, has said that leaving the EU poses a risk to British science, and has been reported as considering leaving the country.

In addition to the factors described above, there has also been a drop in students from the EU applying to study at UK universities, leading to cuts in teaching staff. Unless the UK government can come forward with a coherent plan soon, Britain could struggle to remain at the forefront of science and technology.