Brexit – a double blow for science in Scotland

At the point in the count when Remain had too few votes to win, a thunderstorm broke over Aberdeen.

It fitted my feelings perfectly about a victory for xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism, all inimical to science. My own scientific career matured in Glasgow after returning from working in the US to a UK- funded research institute led by someone who came to Britain in the Kindertransport.

A Nature poll in March found that 83% of UK researchers were for Remain. We have done well out of the EU. The UK paid €5.4 billion into its science budget between 2007 and 2013 but won €8.8 billion back in competitively awarded grants. It is realistic to expect that access to this money will cease. In theory the UK could try to copy non-EU Switzerland, which had negotiated access to these funds. But a Swiss referendum decision to put conditions on the entry of foreigners – in essence terminating its Schengen membership – has put this arrangement in jeopardy. An unsatisfactory partial patch-up arrangement expires next year.

So for science funding, the big question is whether the new UK government will find new money to replace the grants which used to come from the EU. Professor Pangloss has been at work, and prominent Brexiteers have said how much they love science, don’t worry. But other big demands on the Treasury will come first. The Welsh are already looking for compensation through the Barnett formula for the loss of substantial EU structural funds. Something will have to be done about replacing the very big monies that emanate from the EU Common Agricultural Policy. And the NHS, as ever, needs vast sums.

For Scottish scientists all this is bad enough. But the prospect of Indyref 2 doubles our dread. The arguments about the benefits of staying in the UK were precisely the same as those for staying in the EU –access to big pots of research monies, punching above our weight at getting them, seats at the policy-making table, and free and unencumbered movement of scientists across a purely nominal border. It’s Groundhog Day!

It is coincidental that a real Groundhog Day is celebrated at the Watershed Reserve, Pennington, New Jersey. We indeed have crossed a watershed. But Brexiteer predictions about a rosy future have no more worth than those made by the furry forecaster as it emerged from its burrow.

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