In the shifting sands of Brexit, there are some things of which we can be sure. And one of them feels to me worryingly like the first real casualty for UK science
It is a dangerous thing to do for sure. Writing about anything Brexit related at the moment risks very red-editorial faces indeed. The second a publication goes to press any number of political about-turns can, and probably will, occur.
But even in the shifting sands of Brexit, there are some things of which we can be sure. And one of them feels to me worryingly like the first real casualty for UK science.
As of mid-April, European research funder, COST, ruled out any UK based grant holders. It has essentially ordered those British scientists currently holding a COST grant to transfer their role to an EU based collaborator. It doesn’t rule out that UK-based scientists can be involved in the project, but it is essentially a whacking great demotion. COST stumps-up around €33 million a year in grants designed to stimulate research networks across Europe – 20 of them were based in the UK.
COST say the move is to ensure that projects can continue in the face of a no-deal Brexit. And they are very clear – in that situation, the UK would inevitably disappear from the list of eligible countries.
Ouch. That is, however inevitable, something of a hammer blow to post-EU science in the UK. Even if, and frankly I think it is a big ‘if’, the UK government’s promise to underwrite all of the lost EU funding for science holds true, it just won’t be that simple. What’s being lost here isn’t just potential funding – what will happen is a closing of the door to the cross-European network that funding was supporting.
As if a reduction in funding weren’t a dark enough shadow, it really is the damage done to these international collaborations which threatens to put the light out entirely.
And the UK government know this is a problem – even if they won’t say as much. Which is why the timing of another announcement by the government seems… suspicious. It is, don’t get me wrong, exciting news. The UK Space Agency has announced that a collaboration between the UK and France has developed a forecasting instrument that will set new standards of accuracy in short term weather prediction.
The announcement – surprise, surprise – focussed largely on how this shows a ‘strong working relationship between the British and French science sectors’. Which is great, who wouldn’t want that? But is this true, or is this just a PR return of serve to stay in the match?
As insidious as it is, in the milieu of Brexit everything seems to have become politicised – and maybe I am reading too much into this, but of one thing I am certain: in the turbulent years ahead, using science as a political pawn is dangerous.
The disrespect this shows to the scientists involved just adds insult to the injury of reduced funding and damaged collaborations.