Starting a new chapter for UK research

As the UK makes final preparations to leave the EU on 31 January, our President Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci looks forward and finds  reasons to be hopeful.

The UK’s impending exit from EU has been a cause of a great deal of uncertainty and concern for many scientists over the last three years.

UK science benefitted in many ways from being part of the EU. And this benefit was reciprocal with UK science having a considerable positive impact on European research. 

So it is understandable to feel this loss this week. Yet, I want to challenge the assumption that we should be gloomy about the prospects for UK science.

Since the EU referendum, the Academy and the wider scientific community has campaigned to get the needs of science heard. We have raised concerns about a no deal Brexit, the implications for our international research workforce and helped policy makers think through what leaving the EU means for research funding.

The government’s vocal support for science and the actions they are beginning to take are positive early signs of their commitment to our agenda. I am therefore optimistic that should this continue - we can retain our position as a global leader in science, and perhaps even build on this.

In the short term

The Academy has worked alongside partners including other national academies and UK research funders since the referendum to highlight how a no deal Brexit would have been catastrophic for science.

The Withdrawal Agreement means that in the short term many things won’t change. We will still have full continued participation in the remainder of Horizon 2020, including the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowships, two incredibly valued funding streams. Moreover, EU and EEA nationals can apply to  the EU settlement scheme to retain the right to live and work in the UK, having until 30 June 2021 to do so. I sincerely hope that those EU and EEA nationals who make such an enormous contribution to UK science will  feel able to remain in the UK as valued members of our research community.

Despite this, we need to start redefining our relationship with Europe as soon as possible. The report published this week by Wellcome and Breugel explored how this could be done – crucially it found that a deal that protects science can be achieved, but we must act quickly to avoid a damaging hiatus at the end of 2020.

In the longer term

Going forwards I hope that our future partnership with the EU will be close and enduring. There is no doubt that we achieve more when we work together, and as an Academy we will continue to value our dialogue and partnership with our European counterparts. Tomorrow [Friday 31 January] our Vice President Professor Michael Malim FRS FMedSci is attending a meeting in the European Parliament about the future of European health research – a sign that our Academy remains committed to a shared research endeavour. We will also continue to be an active supporter of the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) and we will advocate for the UK’s continued association to Horizon Europe.

Investing in UK strengths

Back in the UK, we are pleased that Boris Johnson has spoken about the importance of funding research and supporting our world-leading universities. The announcement of the Global Talent visa earlier this week was a welcome step towards making it easier for skilled international researchers to come and work in the UK. These changes are the first in an area of wider reform. We will continue to work hard to ensure that the immigration system evolves to suit the needs of the biomedical and health research community, attracting talented researchers who want to work in the NHS and our life sciences industries, as well as our universities. In the meantime, I encourage you to make use of the new Global Talent visa and share your feedback and experiences.

We must also look ahead to the March budget, and remind the government about their manifesto commitments to science, including moving to a target of 2.4% of GDP funding for research and development by 2027 and, as the Science Minister recently confirmed, “doubling R&D funding”. Delivering this sort of investment has the potential to transform UK science, but we must now ensure that it is invested in ways which support the whole eco-system, for example, ensuring that investment is balanced between basic and applied research; that all areas of the UK can benefit; and that research in our world-leading universities and hospitals continues to be a sustainable activity. If we get this right, the wider benefits will be delivered for our nation’s health and wealth.

I hope you will agree that the Academy has played a critically important role in this debate so far and that our voice will be vital to ensuring the Government’s stated intentions for science are followed-through in the coming months and years.


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