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The Long Read: British Science post Brexit
30 Sep, 2020

In July of this year, major contracts for development of the six new earth observation satellites, part of the Copernicus project, were awarded by the European Space Agency (ESA). These satellites, when constructed, will monitor key data to inform the world on climate change, such as surface temperature, the size of ice fields and levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere.

The UK has a very strong record in the space industry. Despite this, British firms did not win leadership roles for any of the major contracts. The BBC quotes a disappointed Alistair Maclenan, of the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies - "This is not something the UK can replicate on its own. The amount of money, time and expertise means something like Copernicus can only be done across countries and to not be at the heart of it would be a huge mistake”.


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Now, although ESA is not part of the EU, funding for the manufacture of these satellites comes from the EU budget. Britain’s eligibility to bid for future contracts such as these is still on the negotiating table as part of the overall trade deal. But this time around, ESA and the bidding organisations were not prepared to take a risk, and major opportunities have been lost.

British science research, and the spin-off business from that research, is already losing from Brexit. The reasons have been so well rehearsed I only need to summarise them here. Of course there’s loss of a major funding mechanism that consistently pays out to UK science projects every year much more than we contribute. It was recently announced that British researchers have received the second largest number of European Research Council startup grants for 2020 - 62 in all. It’s potentially the last year for which they will be available to groups based here. But there’s more lost from leaving EU science behind than simply money and contracts.

For UK researchers starting out on their careers, the loss of freedom of movement will reduce the opportunities available. In many niche scientific areas, only a small number of positions open up across the EU and the UK every year. British researchers will find applying for these posts more difficult. And this is not just for the ‘brightest and best’ - these networks enable distinctly average scientists, such as myself, to benefit from working with different groups, sharing ideas and improving knowledge.

Furthermore, there are operational considerations. The research networks make cross-border projects much easier to run - there’s no working visa bureaucracy for UK scientists to participate in overseas field experiments, for example, or complex carnet forms to be completed to transport measurement equipment. And many ambitious but expensive projects, such as space science, are only really feasible through a cross-border funding approach.

Which brings us back to satellites. Besides Copernicus, the other big ESA satellite project is Galileo - an advanced navigation system with much of it designed and built by UK firms. In recent months the news broke that the UK had stumbled across a different approach - the government announced plans to invest £400 million in the bankrupt company OneWeb. The objective is to launch a large number of small satellites in near-earth orbit to achieve the same objectives as the Galileo system at a fraction of the price. A win-win solution to prove British agility in the post-Brexit world? To be honest - I don’t know, but I’m sceptical. Civil servants at the government Department for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) insisted on a formal procedure to place on record strong concerns that the money could be lost. On the other hand, this is an exciting area - there’s a real buzz about grids satellites the size of fridges launched by private entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk. As with so much in recent current affairs, UK involvement is likely linked to the Prime Minister’s advisor Dominic Cummings - not a trained scientist, but definitely a science fan.

The £400 million government bet on the OneWeb satellite system is an example of the kind of high risk planned for the future - the idea is for UK state investment in exciting start-up companies at an early stage to reap the billion pound returns later. In fact, one of the reasons the negotiations on the EU Trade Deal with the UK have stalled is because the UK wants more liberty to invest money in start-ups in this way. But the skill of the government to ‘pick winners’ is dubious - Cummings himself claimed to have predicted COVID-19, but was famously found out to have edited an old blogpost to give that impression. The government will rightly, if successful, claim credit for having funded much of the immense efforts at Oxford University this year to develop a vaccine. However, Adrian Hill, head of the Jenner Institute leading the initiative, estimates that the EU has been the Institute’s largest funding source for the last five years as a whole, over a broad range of projects. It’s important that the financing of skilled researchers doesn’t stop when the research in question is not a matter of extreme urgency. The best way to ensure this is to have multiple sources of funding to turn to, rather than leaving the decision in the hands of political advisors reading ‘Wired’ magazine.

I’m also sceptical that the philosophy behind Brexit will really help make the UK the next Silicon Valley. California is a great base for start-ups because it offers an attractive mix of Universities, investors and unconventional people with interesting ideas. Will British universities offer as stimulating an environment by looking further inwards? Would Apple founder and college drop-out Steve Jobs have been welcomed with open arms to Britain under a points-based system? The ending of Free Movement, coupled with the restrictions and inconveniences from leaving networks such as Erasmus and Horizon, not to mention large scale projects such as Copernicus and Galileo, will only reduce opportunities for international projects and the exchange of ideas - the essence of science and tech innovation.

What can we do now?

Anything less than full continued participation in European networks will be a poor compromise. An overwhelming majority of workers from a science background agree on this: 83% of researchers opposed Brexit in a pre-referendum poll by ‘Nature’. The arguments are so clear-cut it’s difficult for even the most fervent Brexiter MP to articulate a case against them - but we will have to force them to do so, through letter writing, petitions and making as much noise as possible. If you are reading this, chances are this is not the first time your MP has heard from you lately, but we need them to keep receiving input so that this issue isn’t overlooked. If you are a supporter of one of the main political parties, consider joining their respective science group to pool resources and put pressure on the leadership. If you haven’t already, sign up as a member of the European Movement to receive the latest campaign information as it develops.

When the UK trade deal with the EU is announced, if there is a deal, we need to put a spotlight on what it means for UK science specifically, and an inadequate agreement must be exposed as such. The previous political declaration, for example, contained washy words about hope for future cooperation, but nothing concrete. What we need to know is precisely what the deal means for Horizon (the funding method for projects), Erasmus (the student exchange programme) and large-scale projects such as Copernicus and Galileo satellites. Participating countries do not need to be EU members to take part, so don’t let politicians pass this off as an argument!

Don’t forget keeping these networks strong is not only a way to a more interesting and enlightened future, and set a benchmark for global cooperation, but are a strong way to demonstrate how in the long term the UK benefits from working closely with all the partners on our doorstep. The road back starts here!

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James Ryder
published this page in Blog 2020-09-30 15:03:56 +0100