Director’s update: our priorities for the Brexit negotiations

As the formal negotiations on the UK’s exit from the European Union begin in Brussels, Wellcome’s Director Jeremy Farrar outlines what science needs to thrive post-Brexit.

In an article in today's Times, he sets out three key things that the government should prioritise during the negotiations to sustain Britain’s status as a world-leading centre for science:

Full text of the article

In science, an unexpected result is an occasion for questioning your assumptions. When the evidence of an experiment surprises you, or a patient confounds your diagnosis, or a clinical trial finds an unexpected side effect, the right response is never to ignore inconvenient data. It’s to ask yourself why, to consider what you might learn, and to wonder what to do differently next time. It’s a chance to think again before you progress too far down an unproductive track.

Elections offer a similar opportunity to correct course in light of new information. I believe this is an opportunity for reflection that the new government should take as it considers how best to exit the European Union – and especially as it considers how to sustain Britain’s status as a world-leading centre for science and the economic and social benefits this brings.

Before the election, the Wellcome Trust, which spends £1 billion a year on research, most of it in the UK, wrote to the party leaders setting out three areas in which the right Brexit settlement can deliver the scientific excellence our country needs to transform lives, health and prosperity. In each of these areas, there is a case for revisiting assumptions and priorities that have previously informed the government’s approach.

First, science is a reliable driver of economic growth and job creation, when countries create the right conditions for innovative industries to thrive. In the UK’s case, this means supporting the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors, which depend on their free access to European markets. This access requires harmonised regulation between the UK and the EU, on issues such as medicines and data protection. This will be complicated to achieve while the government does not countenance any arbitration role for the European Court of Justice. Were ECJ jurisdiction no longer to be a “red line”, the potential of British science to enhance British competitiveness would be improved.

Next, British science has always done exceptionally well from EU science funding programmes such as the European Research Council. The UK has worked hard to ensure that these stimulate research excellence and international collaboration, and our scientists receive far more funding than we contribute, with European funding making up 18% of all research funding to higher education institutions. Other countries outside the EU, such as Switzerland, get the full benefit of these schemes because their governments are prepared to pay to be full participants. If the UK is now prepared to make similar contributions, our scientists could continue to take advantage.

Finally, we know that great science is built on great talent, wherever it is from. We must be welcoming to foreign researchers, technicians, innovators and their families, at every stage of their career, and to students, who contribute to the cultural richness of our universities and help to turn them into engines of prosperity. This is not because there is any shortage of home-grown scientists – but because the arrival of people with new ideas and fresh thinking lifts standards.

Since last year’s referendum, we have observed a chilling effect on this flow of talent to the UK. For example, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which sequenced a third of the human genome, has seen a near 50 per cent drop in PhD applications from non-British EU nationals. A swift guarantee to EU citizens already in Britain, followed by a transitional approach that recognises the economic and societal value of free movement, would relieve this until a simple migration system can be agreed for the longer term.

It is clear that a disorderly “no deal” Brexit could be damaging for science, and for the health and competitiveness that it enhances. It is also clear that if the government cannot easily negotiate a bespoke solution to these challenges, it could achieve the objectives above through membership of the European Economic Area at the end of the Article 50 process. This would be a simpler and beneficial fallback option, until such time as suitable longer-term arrangements could be negotiated. It would enable us to leave the EU in a way that preserves Britain’s scientific excellence and all the benefits for our society that flow from this. Wellcome would support it.

This comment article first appeared in The Times on 20 June 2017.

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