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What the United Kingdom’s ‘Brexit election’ means for science

Promises to raise research spending and take action on climate change overshadowed by scientists’ fears about leaving the European Union.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Cambridge Clinical Research Facility, in Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s (centre) Conservative party has promised to raise UK spending on research to 2.4% of gross domestic product.Credit: Alastair Grant/AP/Shutterstock

The United Kingdom’s three main political parties have each pledged to increase spending on science, ahead of a general election overshadowed by the country’s vote three and a half years ago to leave the European Union.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the election — which is on 12 December — following Parliament’s inability to agree on how to move forward in the wake of the Brexit vote. The three main parties diverge widely on their plans for the impending divorce: the Conservatives vow to take the country out by 31 January, Labour promises a second ‘people’s vote’ with an option to remain in the EU, and the Liberal Democrats are campaigning on a platform to stop Brexit altogether.

The spectre of Brexit “looms large over science”, says James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, UK. As well as its wider political and economic impacts, Brexit’s changes to freedom of movement and participation in EU programmes could have major knock-on effects for scientists.

Money talk

Although Brexit remains the dominant issue on the campaign agenda, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all promised in their manifestos to invest more money in research and development.

The United Kingdom currently spends about 1.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development, totalling around £7.5 billion (US$9.8 billion) per year. This is small compared with the amounts spent by other nations that invest heavily in science, such as the United States and Germany.

The governing Conservative party — whose manifesto mentions the words ‘research’ and ‘science’ more times than ever before, and more than those of the other two main parties (see ‘Political push’) — are pushing for the lowest increase. They pledge to spend 2.4% of GDP for science, although they do not specify a timescale in their current manifesto, the party said in 2017 that it was aiming to do this by 2027.

The other two parties target 3%, with Labour pledging to hit the goal by 2030 as part of a plan to “create an innovation nation”. The Liberal Democrats have pledged an “interim target” of 2.4% by 2027, and have no set date for attaining the larger figure.

But some question how realistic these pledges are. “It’s really exciting to see that Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have all kept ambitious plans in their manifestos to increase research investment,” says Beth Thompson, Head of UK and EU Policy at Wellcome, a research charity based in London. “What we haven’t seen is how they can get to the ambitious targets that they set out.”

Fulfilling spending promises could be especially challenging in light of the United Kingdom’s current plans to leave the EU. From 2014 to 2020, the country received £4.7 billion from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme, which — although comprising only a portion of overall science funding — has connected UK researchers with international projects. “The money that brings is fantastic, but it’s so much more than that,” says policy officer James Tooze from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a non-profit organization in London. “It’s the ability of people to collaborate across the continent, to share ideas and people and equipment.”

In their manifesto, the Conservatives say they will “continue to collaborate internationally and with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon”, despite their promise to leave. Labour promises “continued participation in EU agencies”, including scientific research, and the Liberal Democrats want to avoid leaving the programme, in line with their promise to stop Brexit.

Another big issue that Brexit presents for researchers is the prospect of an end to the free movement of EU citizens in and out of the country. This could limit the number of overseas students and scientists that can come to live and work in UK universities and research institutions. Labour says that freedom of movement, currently guaranteed under EU membership, would be “subject to negotiations” if the United Kingdom exits while the party is in power. The Conservatives have promised to end freedom of movement if the country leaves — but say that they would introduce “new rules for those of exceptional talent”. The Liberal Democrats want to stop Brexit and “save EU freedom of movement”.

Being green

Climate change has also emerged as a major campaign topic, after a year in which public pressure on governments to act on the crisis surged: the global climate strikes and the Extinction Rebellion movement established a presence in cities across the United Kingdom, in particular London. There are signs that the three major parties are responding to calls for tougher action on the issue.

Labour, as part of its ‘Green New Deal’, says it will aim for net-zero carbon emissions “within the 2030s”. The Liberal Democrats say they can do the same by 2045, and the Conservatives by 2050.

And the word ‘climate’ appeared 60 times in the Labour manifesto, and 62 times in the Liberal Democrats’ — enormous increases relative to previous elections (see ‘Climate election?’). The Conservative manifesto mentions climate only ten times, which is still significantly more than in previous years.

The election will coincide with the tail end of climate talks at the United Nations’ climate summit, COP25, which are likely to feed into countries’ long-term climate plans.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03774-z

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