- If the United Kingdom changes its immigration policies in the wake of the Brexit, the European Union may restrict its access to the funding that currently supports academic and industrial research.
- Without the same level of financial support from the European Union, the United Kingdom could see a dip in research productivity.
- The United Kingdom will remain strong in research and development, but the conditions negotiated for exiting the European Union, combined with limits and adjustments to funding in research, could make it more difficult for the country to stay at the forefront of technological competitiveness in the long term.
In the scientific community, collaboration across countries, continents and oceans has long been the norm, driving scientific knowledge and innovation forward. Research projects and development, especially at the academic level, often cross international borders. Even so, science and research are not immune to political and economic restraints: Travel and immigration regulations, access to funding, and patent laws all limit open collaboration in scientific development.
The United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union will not eliminate the opportunities for its scientists and researchers to work with those of other countries, even EU member states. Nevertheless, it could have repercussions for the future of technological innovation in the United Kingdom. Though ideas will continue to flow freely between the United Kingdom and the Continent after the Brexit, scientists and researchers may not. In addition, as the Brexit becomes a reality, funding for research in the United Kingdom likely will take a substantial hit.
A Costly Move
Throughout history, Britain has played a prominent role in science and development, producing some of the world's greatest minds and discoveries. These discoveries laid the foundation for technologies that help countries such as the United Kingdom to fulfill their geopolitical imperatives. Today, research and technological development remain important to the United Kingdom, as its storied academic halls work with industry to promote innovation. But in recent years, these endeavors have come to rely more and more on the European Union. And as the United Kingdom prepares to negotiate its exit from the union, this reliance could be costly.
In many sectors, including agriculture, the United Kingdom pays more to the Continental bloc than it receives. The opposite is true in research and development (R&D). Given the prestige of its institutions and the global competitiveness of its facilities, the United Kingdom is a desirable place to fund and conduct research. Consequently, the United Kingdom receives more money from the European Research Council than any other EU member by a wide margin (receiving 50 percent more even than Germany, another world leader in science and technology). Between 2007 and 2013, the United Kingdom contributed 5.4 billion euros ($6 billion) to the EU research budget but received 8.8 billion euros in grants from the European Union. Although that amount is a fraction of the United Kingdom's overall R&D budget, projects funded by the European Union have traditionally performed very well.
The European Union's support helps the United Kingdom remain one of the world's scientific leaders while spending only 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product on R&D. (By contrast, in 2013 Germany spent nearly 2.9 percent of its GDP on R&D, while the United States spent 2.8 percent and Japan 3.5 percent.) At the same time, the United Kingdom's growing reliance on EU support to supplement governmental and industrial funding has left it vulnerable. For instance, the country's nanotechnology efforts, which have the potential to advance the technology in areas including energy and military applications, derive 62 percent of their funding from the European Union. If the Brexit brings an end to, or even just reduces, EU funding for research in the United Kingdom, the country could lose ground in numerous areas, which, in turn, would hurt its future technological development.
And this may be only the tip of the iceberg. Corporate R&D startups in the United Kingdom currently enjoy the best of the United Kingdom and the Continent: a strong research base in British academia, friendly business regulation and free trade with one of the world's largest consumer bases. For those companies, the loss of the trade union in the wake of the Brexit could be even more damaging than the loss of research funding. In fact, Reuters recently reported that several financial technology startups are already looking at moving to Berlin.
Universities in the United Kingdom, moreover, currently depend on the European Union for 16 percent of their research funding and about 15 percent of their staff (with 28 percent of university staff members in the United Kingdom and more than half of PhD candidates foreign-born). Some departments are even more reliant on foreign talent: Nationals from outside the United Kingdom account for approximately 37 percent of academic staff in the biological, mathematical and physical sciences — areas crucial to technological innovation.
A Cautionary Tale
Still, the end of the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union does not mean the end of scientific research in the country. After all, collaborations with countries outside the Continental bloc will continue as before. But without the benefits that the European Union provided, paying for research in the United Kingdom could become more difficult. Though non-EU members are eligible to receive EU research funding, the European Research Council has allotted only 7 percent of its support to non-EU countries over the past decade. Furthermore, additional fees absorb 20 percent of the funding, according to some estimates.
Switzerland, though not an EU member, operates as an associated country in Horizon 2020, one of the flagship programs for EU research funding. But in 2014, after the country voted to restrict immigration, the European Union cut access to this funding, and the Erasmus Program — an EU university exchange program — dropped Swiss students. Eventually, Bern was granted conditional partial association. Even so, Switzerland's financial benefits have declined, and its participation in Horizon 2020 has fallen by 40 percent when compared with previous funding periods. Reports suggest that collaborations among scientists from Switzerland and from the European Union have also dropped. And if the country does not ratify an extension on the Free Movement of Persons Agreement by February 2017, it could lose even its limited participation in Horizon 2020.
As the United Kingdom's negotiations to leave the European Union progress, the Swiss example should be of particular interest to London. Since immigration played a starring role in the debate leading up to the referendum vote, academic circles are unsure of whether collaborations post-Brexit will be able to continue to the same extent and with the same ease that they do today. As Switzerland learned, immigration policy may also affect access to EU funding. Beyond the money, international collaboration is extremely important to preserving the competitiveness of United Kingdom institutions. In 1985, only 15 percent of papers published by institutions in the United Kingdom included authors from outside the nation, but today, over half have international partners (in the United States the figure rose from 6 percent to 33 percent over the same time period). Now, scientists on either side of the English Channel are concerned about the future of research and collaboration between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Beyond the ivory towers of academia, the relevance of the funding cuts may not be readily apparent. But basic research remains the foundation of technological innovation. Maintaining prestigious academic and industrial research programs eventually leads to breakthroughs in technologies that can change how the world functions in the future. In this way, being a technological leader can yield geopolitical strength.
The Brexit will not erase the United Kingdom's long history of scientific excellence, nor will it eliminate global collaboration with British scientists. The money at stake is only a fraction of the total funding that drives science and development in the United Kingdom, and the country will eventually find alternative sources to compensate for what it may lose in the Brexit. In the long term, the United Kingdom will continue to be a highly developed, technology-dependent nation. Nonetheless, without the trade union or brainpower that EU membership affords, maintaining a competitive edge will be more challenging. And until the Brexit has been negotiated, uncertainty over the future of funding, immigration policy, jobs and collaborations could cost the United Kingdom opportunities.