More than two years on from the Brexit vote, the UK’s position within Europe remains far from clear. Jessica Foreman, freelance writer shared this as part of our Blog Carnival Series.
Theresa May thwarted a recent rebel move to keep the UK in the Customs Union by just six votes – a sign of how insecure the plans really are.
With the overall picture still so unstable, the future of UK life sciences remains uncertain. On one hand, the newly appointed Health and Social Care Secretary has stressed the importance of a healthy science sector.
During a series of roundtables with leading life science stakeholders, Matt Hancock said: “The life sciences sector is incredibly important to the UK.”
He noted this was: “Not only for the hundreds of thousands of people employed and its £70 billion turnover, but also so NHS patients continue to have access to pioneering new treatments.”
On the other hand, the European Medicines Agency has announced plans to relocate to Amsterdam, marking the first symbolic separation between Britain and the continent. A clear vision of what the UK will look like post-Brexit is still out of reach, but from funding to regulation, there are many ways the European scientific landscape will be impacted by Brexit.
Loss of regulatory certainty
There is still no certainty on how medicines will be regulated post-Brexit, which may stifle British pharma research, as continental Europe becomes a lower-risk place to do business.
In the past, Britain has had a significant role in shaping the ‘rules of the game’ in European science. When this is no longer the case, the UK will may need to adapt to regulations it has had no say in and the system might become more complex and costly.
With funding to be applied for and long-term projects to be signed off, uncertainty is not good for the science sector.
The funding question
Early surveys showed most academics were against Brexit. The UK gained £3bn more research funding than it deposited between 2007 and 2013, so this is perhaps unsurprising. A net funding loss rarely spells good news, and it is likely that UK innovation will suffer in the short term.
However, of the nine leading research universities in Europe, seven are located in the UK and one in Switzerland. If the UK is able to retain its role within organisations like CERN, the European Molecular Biology laboratories and the European Space Agency, UK science may be able to continue pace in the long term. But, with the UK on track to secure poorer access than Israel, this is far from guaranteed.
From 2019, the EU will also lose UK contributions to its scientific funding pot. This amounts to almost €1bn per year – a significant sum. The EU has launched an ‘ambitious’ plan to cover this deficit and maintain steady funding, anticipating the impact of Brexit.
According to Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, “really difficult decisions” will need to be made about how the EU spends its budget with the loss in funding.
There’s more to scientific innovation than funding, Brexit-based disruption will almost certainly impact European science.
Though Britain receives more in funding than it contributes, Britain may supply more in innovation terms. A senior policy coordinator at the European University Association predicted in 2017 that EU science would suffer in “crude measures.”
“Brexit will be to the detriment of science in continental Europe,” said Thomas Jørgensen.
“Britain is by far the biggest player in European research. It just has an enormous capacity, and you can’t take out the biggest player without having systematic effects.”
EU projects enable some of society’s most important discoveries, at present. If research stagnates without an effective Brexit deal, other global leaders may take the reins – like the U.S. and emerging science hubs in Asia.
Overseas companies, many of whom already struggle to pick their way through the complexity of the EU, need to keep an eye on any changes too. Pharma market access consultants at companies such as Alacrita have a track record of providing US-based companies and investors with regulatory guidance to help them access the European market. This sort of advice is likely to be even more sought-after post Brexit, especially if there’s a dramatic change.
Identifying resolutions to optimise proposals to European Health Technology Assessment bodies has helped US firms to expand disease therapies across the Atlantic – and Europe is a big market for American companies. That fact shouldn’t change – but the way in which companies launch and establish products might need to alter.
Placing restrictions on talent and collaboration
If the UK exits the single market and customs union, the way British and European talent interact will change significantly.
The science job market is a truly global affair, so Brexit could cause a ‘brain drain’, as the most qualified researchers flock from Britain. This could benefit European science, especially in locations like Amsterdam, already tipped for a Brexit boost.
Collaboration also exists on an institutional level, and several of the UK’s biggest scientific investments are at risk. For instance, the progress of the Galileo satellite navigation project has stagnated since the European Commission decided to expel the UK from collaboration. Disputes about a £900m refund are underway, and causing frosty relations between key players.
In fact, several European Space Agency projects work closely with UK companies. As the UK divorces its former partners, the messy business of how to divide funding and operations of already-launched projects will slow innovation in the short term. After all, poor relations aren’t good for team-based research and development.
Changing the excellence-led focus?
One possible consequence of Brexit is a radical departure from the traditional excellence-led funding focus.
Horizon Europe, formerly Framework Programme 9, is the EU framework for research and innovation. Outside of the EU, the UK will no longer have any say on research priorities or how funding is allocated. In the past, funding has been dispensed on an excellence-led basis. Countries like the UK and Sweden benefit disproportionately from this system.
Poorer countries in the south and east have previously called for the excellence-led focus to be relaxed, so this is a real possibility for future policy. With less focus on excellence, we could see scientific innovation spread more evenly throughout the EU, with unknown costs to the quality of science.
If you could sum up the situation with science and Brexit in one word it would be ‘uncertainty’. Research, funding, regulation, recruitment and collaboration as they stand are all up in the air. While it’s up to the negotiations to solve these and many more questions, for the time being there are no answers.