From dire warnings and shock through to the promise of extra government funding and even signs of optimism in some quarters, the United Kingdom’s research sector has been on a roller-coaster since UK voters chose to leave the European Union in June. Here we take a look at some of the issues facing agricultural research in the UK as the country prepares for Brexit.
Naturally, one of the major concerns in the UK is the future of EU research funding as the country currently receives around £850m annually, but money is not the only issue. There is also the question of the free movement of students and researchers, which is a requirement for full membership in the Horizon 2020 programme for example, and fears that the possibilities for networking could be compromised.
And for agriculture itself there are questions over what will replace the Common Agricultural Policy and the stance the government takes on pesticides and environmental protection, given farming minister George Eustice’s description of Brussels directives as “spirit-crushing”. Indeed, in an open letter to mark the third anniversary of the EU ban on neonicotinoids, 16 UK wildlife, conservation and environment groups have called for the current EU restrictions on neonicotinoid insecticides to be maintained and extended to all crops.
Currently, there is much uncertainty over what will eventually happen when the UK government triggers Article 50, which will start the Brexit process. Indeed, this uncertainty has been described as “poison” by Dame Anne Glover, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission and currently Vice-Principal at the University of Aberdeen. She told the BBC’s Inside Science programme that the UK’s research base is “starting to be compromised” and that access to the Horizon 2020 must be maintained or some areas of research would be impossible.
In terms of funding worries, the UK government sought to allay fears in late November announcing an extra £2 billion of investment in research and development by 2020. To put this into perspective, this would be around an extra third on current spending or a 20% increase in total R&D investments, as the UK includes the use of R&D tax credits in its investment figures.
During his budget statement, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond (pictured right) told the UK’s House of Commons: “We do not invest enough in research, development and innovation. As the pace of technology advances and competition from the rest of the world increases, we must build on our strengths in science and tech innovation to ensure the next generation of discoveries is made, developed and produced in Britain.”
Naturally, the boost in investment has been welcomed, though some observers have questioned the degree to which it will fund basic research and criticised the Chancellor for not mentioning the impact of Brexit on science. For example, Sarah Main, director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering told Nature: “It is a real boost to see UK strength in science being championed by the prime minister and backed with what is the most significant investment in R&D I can remember.” While Stephen Curry, a member of the advisory board for the campaign group Science is Vital, said: “I’d like to know how the loss of EU funding will impact decisions on allocation of the new investments announced today.”
In his analysis of the increased funding, BBC News science correspondent Pallab Ghosh noted: “If Theresa May's CBI [Confederation of British Industry] announcement of £2bn for research is truly new money - and depending on the strings attached - this intervention could go a long way to cancelling out any potential financial cost of Brexit. It would not on its own, however, make up for the possible loss of collaborations with EU scientists following Brexit.”
The potential harm to collaboration is exercising many others too. During a debate on the impact of Brexit on farming in the House of Lords (the UK’s parliament’s second chamber), the Earl of Caithness (Conservative) said: “...farming strategy needs to be based on agricultural research ...Here I am concerned about our links with other European institutions. Already the universities are saying that contracts are being lost. One university has been advised that it should not join in with other EU universities because it would jeopardise their chances of getting money from the EU.”
Noting that diseases do not “care a hoot” about national borders, he added: “Therefore, we need to be absolutely certain that we can work with the other institutions throughout Europe on a basis that is productive for all.”
The danger to scientific collaboration has also been highlighted by the Farmers Guardian Insight team, both in terms of reduced funding but also in potential changes to immigration rules given the UK government’s determination to ‘control its borders’.
Farmers Guardian has reported on submissions made to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the impact of Brexit on science and research. Professor Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre (JIC, pictured right), an internationally known crop research institute, told the committee that “excellent science relies on the brightest and best minds working together”.
Of JIC’s 303 staff, 28% are from the EU and a further 24% from elsewhere in the world, and £2m of its £31m 2014/2015 funding came from the EU.
“Science is an international activity and we have many links in the EU and globally,” he said. “These collaborations enable scientists to work together to build on each other’s findings, achieving much more together than they ever could have done alone.”
Looking at possible options, Professor Sanders said: “If we were no longer able to access EU funding, those collaborations would be put at risk. If, however, the UK remains part of the European Economic Area, as Norway and Switzerland are, we may still be able to benefit from EU research funding, but the UK would have to contribute to the EU’s research budget.”
Examining staff issues, he added: “In order to maintain our status as a world-leading research institute, we need to continue to be able to hire the brightest and best from across Europe and the world. We would have concerns if immigration rules were changed significantly as part of leaving the EU. Scientific research is at its best when it collaborates and builds on national and international knowledge.”
For ENDURE’s Scottish partner, the James Hutton Institute, which held a roundtable meeting to discuss the implications of Brexit for research and innovation in November, income is also an issue, with £3m of its annual £37m funding coming from Europe. But in an interview with Farmers Guardian, chief executive Professor Colin Campbell said the potential impacts of Brexit went beyond financial concerns.
“Brexit, however it eventually transpires, has potential to have far reaching effects on science,” he said. “It will be essential to recognise, preserve and enhance the great benefits we have thus far gained from the EU. These included the free movement of labour which provides mobility to the best researchers to work in Scotland and the UK, keeping our international lead in agricultural research.
“But the situation is also an opportunity to look at new ways of keeping the current and perhaps new international collaborations as part of the way we work. There are also opportunities to take a fresh look at policy and ask if it is fit for purpose and still meeting contemporary needs. This will need robust scientific evidence and analysis.”
However, he stressed the importance of European collaboration. “Farming systems in northern Europe tend to have a lot in common,” he explained. “There will often be a benefit in working closely with scientists from those countries as opposed to regions of the world where agricultural conditions are considerably different.”
Examining current crop protection challenges and introducing the CROPROTECT network he has developed, Professor Toby Bruce from Rothamsted Research, ENDURE’s English partner, highlighted the new possibilities which Brexit could bring.
Writing on the Rothamsted Research website, he said: “Science is vital to deliver the new solutions. With greater independence to set policy following Brexit, there is an opportunity for the UK to become an ‘innovation nation’ and a world leader in science and innovation, provided that sufficient investment is made.
“The UK can champion evidence-based policy to stimulate a knowledge-based economy and a regulatory framework conducive to exploitation of research. However, some harmonisation across Europe is still needed because the EU is a large export market for UK agricultural produce and agricultural companies would also like to develop products for the whole EU and not just the UK.
“Regulation of crop protection is required to prevent off-target effects, but excessively precautionary approaches can be a block to innovation. There is a need to minimise crop losses to pests and innovation is needed to move beyond the current status quo which is highly dependent on use of broad-spectrum pesticides.”
With leading scientists keen to claim a place at the negotiating table when Article 50 is finally triggered, it is clear that we are currently still in the early stages of what could be a long and potentially tricky process.
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