Brexit: we need a quick and generous consensus on science

Wellcome’s director Jeremy Farrar says that to protect vital scientific collaboration, the UK needs to make contributions to EU science that match or exceed the grant value UK researchers can expect to receive.

Going through a bill line by line before you settle up, as David Davis says he is doing over the Brexit divorce settlement, sounds sensible. To get a fair deal, you want to be sure that you’re not paying over the odds and that the other side isn’t pulling a fast one.

But when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, as the UK has been with the EU, things are not so simple. Sometimes the cost of something understates its real value. One example is Britain’s scientific relationship with Europe.

Take rare diseases such as muscular dystrophy and mitochondrial disease. Often there are too few patients in one country to make much progress on research, but collectively these diseases affect 30 million EU citizens, most of whom are children and young people. By pooling resources across countries patients with these conditions have a better chance of diagnosis and treatment.

The government’s offer to keep paying into the EU science budget after Brexit, expected today in a position paper, would help to keep this mutual benefit alive. But much remains to be spelt out. Uncertainty about whether British researchers will be eligible for grants after we leave in 2019 is already having a chilling effect. Wellcome knows of some who have already been excluded from grants, abandoned potential collaborations, or chosen to work in another country with more certain funding.

A strong and unambiguous deal on funding, which guarantees continuing ties with other leading researchers on the Continent, would be real and tangible progress.
Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome’s Director

The government urgently needs to give Britain’s scientists some clarity. A strong and unambiguous deal on funding, which guarantees continuing ties with other leading researchers on the Continent, would be real and tangible progress.

If Mr Davis is shrewd, he will see that paying even more into the EU science budget than we get back in grants is worthwhile. First, as rare diseases show, the dividend from collaborating with European colleagues cannot just be measured in cash terms. Second, an outward-looking Britain should want its scientists and universities to benefit from privileged access to the strongest and most prestigious research network in the world.

What’s more, a quick and generous consensus on science would build goodwill for more difficult negotiations. It could even serve as a model for future EU-UK collaboration, so that the divorce does not jeopardise other benefits that neither party really wants to lose.

On science, as on many other issues, our best interests are not always served by quibbling over the bill.

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