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Research Funding

Editorial: In the Brexit negotiations, science loses to politics once again

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 16, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 22

Feet between two arrows, one patterned with the European Union flag and the other with the UK flag.
Credit: Shutterstock

Don’t you hate it when science is used to play political hardball? Unfortunately, manipulation of science for political means happens more often than most of us are comfortable with. The pandemic is a clear example of a situation in which politicians have downplayed risks, distorted information, and weaponized data in ways that have cost lives and jobs.

We are seeing another instance of this phenomenon as a result of the UK’s negotiations around leaving the European Union—the so-called Brexit—and their impact on science funding. “The UK is facing an exodus of star scientists,” the Guardian reports, as 143 UK-based researchers who have been awarded European Research Council (ERC) funds face a deadline to relinquish their grants or transfer them and their labs to other institutes outside the UK, but within the EU or an associated country.

The ERC funds the European Union’s Horizon Europe program, which has more than €100 billion ($105 billion) in funding and is designed to provide grants to research scientists in EU member states and in countries that agree to become associate members.

Although it is clear that participation in the Horizon Europe program is the best option for science in the UK—because of the funding that is available through Horizon and the opportunities to collaborate within Europe and beyond, as well as the prestige that comes with winning the highly competitive ERC grants—the country is running out of options. The EU and the UK had agreed in December 2020 that participation in Horizon by UK scientists would continue after Brexit. But now that negotiations related to the Northern Ireland border have stalled, that science accord is effectively frozen.

Establishing a research program of that size in less than 6 months while continuing to come up against Brexit negotiations sounds like an impossible feat.

The UK grant winners facing the prospect of forgoing funding or relocating have until June 29 to come to a decision. According to the Guardian, 16 of the 143 have indicated that they intend to relocate their laboratories outside the UK or are in the process of negotiating to do so.

Apparently, the UK government has guaranteed that if an agreement cannot be reached, it will fund ERC winners until the end of this year. And then the country will “develop its own £15-billion (US$18.7-billion) research programme to rival Horizon Europe,” according to a Nature story.

The UK program, called Plan B, “would seek to emulate components of the EU programme, although the details of how it would operate are unclear,” the Nature story says.

This is laughable. And little more than playground tactics, reminiscent of a child telling others he will stop playing if they refuse to play by his rules. Establishing a research program of that size in less than 6 months while continuing to come up against Brexit negotiations sounds like an impossible feat.

But the tragedy here is for science, which becomes the victim of a political dispute once again; for scientific research in the UK, which will suffer the loss of talent, diversity, and global appeal; and for scientists themselves. Some of them face very tough, life-changing decisions that must be made against the clock. The rest find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a smaller—and less competitive and prestigious—playing field.

Science loses to politics once again.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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