The government will invest an extra £2bn per year in research and development (R&D) by 2020–2021, UK Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in the first post-Brexit Autumn Statement on 23 November 2016. Many members of the scientific community, including Scientists for EU, a group of UK scientists campaigning to keep the UK in the EU, applauded this announcement, despite the total investment falling far short of the recommended 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) target set by the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Commons. The UK will spend 1.7% of GDP on R&D — only around 0.1% more than it already spends.
Mike Galsworthy, programme director of Scientists for EU, told me that a promise to commit additional funds at a time of austerity shows that the government wants to put science on the front foot and cares about the scientific community. But investment from the government is inching, rather than striding, in the right direction, and Galsworthy warned that the cost of Brexit means that borrowing is surging.
Scientists are right to be cautious about the promised level of investment, which may only serve to offset future damage to the UK’s relationship with Horizon 2020, the EU’s biggest ever research and innovation programme. The project will provide nearly €80bn of funding between 2014 and 2020, and additional private investment that this money attracts. Horizon 2020 is fundamentally international, its reach is global, and it offers a broader and more powerful toolkit for R&D than national funding could; damage to the programme will be critical.
The scientific community has reason to believe it has the government’s backing, but Hammond’s 2016 Autumn Statement made a glaringly obvious omission of the healthcare sector. Health organisations, including the British Medical Association, the trade union and professional association for doctors in the UK, and charity The King’s Fund, have criticised the lack of additional funding. Many UK-based researchers work within NHS environments, but research will inevitably be deprioritised in a healthcare system where funding cuts — sugar-coated as efficiency savings — mean staff struggle to provide even the most basic services.
Despite optimism that EU citizens, including science and health researchers, will keep their existing rights to stay in the UK after Brexit is implemented, their circumstances are unclear and some form of reassurance from the government would be appreciated by the research communities.
But it is possible that the reshuffle of the scientific community in the UK after Brexit may instead serve as a stimulus to attract top scientists from beyond Europe. Alice Gast, president of Imperial College, suggested that the government should consider reforming the visa system to encourage more of the world’s top scientists to develop their ideas and innovations in the UK.
Scientists, organisations and think tanks outlined the risks of leaving the EU to research, science and healthcare before June 2016’s referendum (
Pharmaceutical Journal 2016;296:285). Now that Brexit is a reality, the government must consider these risks, minimise the many potentially damaging impacts on the R&D sector, and seek new opportunities to draw the world’s best talent to the UK.