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UK election dashes scientists’ hopes of staying in the EU

Brexit certainty intensifies researchers’ concerns about international collaboration and access to European Union funds.

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Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, waves to the media as he arrives at number 10 Downing Street, on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019.

Boris Johnson remains UK prime minister after the Conservative party wins the election with a substantial majority.Credit: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg/Getty

The United Kingdom is now firmly on the path towards leaving the European Union, after the Conservative party won a majority of 79 seats in yesterday’s general election — a result that has major implications for science.

In the wake of the election, researchers are also questioning whether the party will be able to honour its campaign promise to increase spending on science.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigned on the basis that he would take the United Kingdom out of the EU with his previously negotiated withdrawal agreement by 31 January 2020 if his party won a majority.

So the Conservative victory more or less ends the possibility of remaining in the EU, which was left open ahead of the general election, and which some scientists had hoped for.

“Given the pro-Remain sentiments of a large majority of the scientific and academic community, many people would have been clinging to the hope of some kind of second referendum or some attempt to try and reopen the fundamental question,” says James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, UK. “Clearly, that option has now gone.”

But the result does mean that, for the time being, researchers no longer face the prospect of a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

“There is a great degree of certainty in what was a very uncertain situation,” says Wilsdon. “I think a lot of the science community don’t like the substance of that certainty, but at least this does mean we won’t be looking at months or years more of when or how we’ll be leaving the European Union.”

Unresolved issues

Although the result means that Brexit will almost definitely go ahead, there is still a question mark over what the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU will look like.

Details on trade and other aspects have yet to be ironed out, while key issues for science — such as the United Kingdom’s involvement in Europe’s Horizon 2020 research programme, a crucial source of funding and collaboration — have yet to be resolved. “The Conservative manifesto says we will continue to collaborate internationally and with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon,” says Sarah Main, executive director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. “But it’s not quite 100% clear how that’s going to be enabled to happen.”

The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU will also bring changes to the free movement of EU citizens in and out of the country, which could affect overseas recruitment at UK universities and research institutions. The Conservatives promised in their manifesto to introduce “new rules for those of exceptional talent” in a post-Brexit immigration system.

“We need to make sure that researchers from EEA [European Economic Area] countries who currently benefit from freedom of movement can still come to the UK,” says Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy at Wellcome, a biomedical-research charity in London. “I think it’s important that we send a signal to the rest of the world that the UK is open for business, and that we want to participate in internationally competitive and collaborative science.”

Manifesto pledges

Scientists will also be keen to see whether the government can fulfil the science promises laid out in the Conservative manifesto.

The party has committed to raising UK spending on science and research to 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027, up from 1.7%.

However, the Conservatives have so far failed to make much progress towards this target, warns Kieron Flanagan, a science-policy researcher at the University of Manchester, UK. The pledge to increase research spending to 2.4% of GDP was made in the run up to the 2017 general election. “It’s been an objective for a few years now,” says Flanagan, “But we haven’t seen much activity.” He adds that roughly two-thirds of research funding currently comes from the private sector, so both private and public spending increases will be needed to reach the 2.4% target..

Thompson says that the Conservative manifesto has some “very strong commitments to science”, but at the moment we “don’t have detail on how that will be implemented”.

Other Conservative pledges will also come under scrutiny, such as the proposal to develop “a new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research”, believed to be modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. At the moment it is still unclear how the agency would actually operate, and how it would improve science in the United Kingdom. “We can all rally around those aims,” says Wilsdon. “But I’ve not seen anything yet that makes a clear, evidence-informed case for why we need a new institution.”

As the new government settles in, researchers will have to wait and see whether the ruling party can fulfil its manifesto pledges, and how negotiations with the EU will progress. “We’ve got a government that is driving an aggressive and ambitious science agenda, but it also has a mandate to leave the EU,” says Main, “And that raises questions for the science community.”

Nature 576, 345-346 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03865-x

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