Brexit is not a threat to British science

British R&D funding has been pitifully low for years – despite EU money.

James Woudhuysen


Will Brexit cause irreparable damage to British science? Eminent scientists seem to think so.

In a speech on Facebook Live last week, prime minister Boris Johnson said he would change the rules on immigration to make the UK ‘even more open, even more welcoming’ to foreign scientists. A frothy Downing Street press release clarified that a ‘fast-track’ immigration route would ‘attract elite scientists’ from abroad to Britain, and would support a ‘reinvigorated research economy’. No 10 also promised that British scientists whose search for EU funds had been frustrated by Brexit would be reimbursed so that ‘no one is disadvantaged’. Lastly, the United Kingdom Research and Innovation quango would ‘automatically’ review UK applications stuck in the process of getting grants under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

This outburst of feelgood vagueness annoyed the famous scientist and Nobel laureate, Sir Andre Geim. In The Times, Geim accused Johnson of taking scientists ‘for fools’. In the event of a No Deal Brexit, he said, ‘turmoil is inevitable for many years’. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, added that No Deal was ‘the worst option’ for British science. Richard Dawkins forecasted an exodus of scientific talent from the UK. Top scientists would, he said, ‘no longer wish to work under xenophobic, illiberal, destructively chaotic regimes’ such as Britain’s.

But indefinite turmoil is by no means guaranteed for British science after Brexit. First of all, the importance of the EU to science is overstated. As the EU’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation notes, although Horizon 2020 is the largest single research and innovation programme in Europe, it still only accounts for about 10 to 15 per cent of total public investment in science across the EU.

While the UK is, overall, a net contributor to the EU budget, science is one of the few areas where the UK gets more money from the EU than we pay in. Back in December 2015, the Royal Society reported that the UK was the second-largest recipient of EU funds under Horizon 2020’s forerunner. Over 2007-2013, the UK received €8.8 billion in direct EU funding for research, development and innovation. In the same period, it contributed €5.4 billion to EU R&D.

But EU funding pales in comparison to the money coming directly from the British state and business. For instance, in 2017, based on my estimates, EU science funding to Britain was around £1.5 billion – more than useful, certainly. But in the same year, UK businesses spent £23.7 billion on R&D, higher education spent £8.2 billion, while government and research councils spent £2.2 billion.

While these figures are larger than what we get from the EU, R&D spending in Britain is still pitifully low. Gross spending from all sources on British R&D has stayed conspicuously below two per cent of GDP since 1990. Clearly, Britain has an unhealthy reliance on EU money for R&D – and, we might add, R&D done through inward direct investment in the UK. This comes at the expense of a proper commitment to science from our own government.

What’s more, the EU is no model for commitment to R&D: while it wants three per cent of its GDP invested in R&D by 2020, gross R&D as a percentage of EU GDP has barely exceeded two per cent since 2012. In contrast, South Korea commits a whopping 4.55 per cent of its GDP to R&D.

The main problem for British scientists isn’t that they’ll lose a few bob from Brussels. The problem is that we need a whole lot more UK spending on science than the EU would ever countenance. The cap-in-hand approach is no plan for British science. Indeed, it is precisely that approach that has damaged British science in the past. Leaving the EU in the future could be – depending on who is in charge – a clarion call for taking science seriously.

Following Geim’s intervention, TV scientist Professor Brian Cox tweeted his agreement, saying that scientists in the UK saw Brexit as ‘a Trumpian, nativist project’. In a graceless follow-up tweet, he told ‘all the idiots’ who had had the temerity to differ from Geim and Co that they should ‘shut up and listen, just for once, to people who know more than you about something’.

Remoaner scientists believe they hold a God-given right to decide on Brexit. Cox forgets that expertise in how the natural world works doesn’t automatically translate to expertise in how to fund and manage British science – let alone British politics more broadly. Perhaps Cox also thinks the minister for science should always be a scientist and the minister for health a doctor. A corporatist technocracy like this would have nothing in common with democracy.

Cox also forgets William Shockley, the American Nobel laureate who discovered the transistor effect. Today, we owe much of IT to his work. He was undoubtedly a brilliant scientist. But does that mean we should have paid special heed to his political views? For instance, Shockley wanted Americans with IQs lower than 100 to be sterilised, so they could not procreate. So was he the go-to man to decide the course of US science policy? Probably not.

Brexit is about the principle of democracy, not just EU R&D funding. With an exit from the EU, British science may well find the going tough for some years. But where there is a will, there is a way. Less jostling for grants from the Brussels bureaucracy, much more generosity from Whitehall, and some internationalism beyond Europe’s borders – these are the ways forward for British science.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University. He is also editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Andrew Clitheroe

27th September 2019 at 4:25 pm

So we need to leave the EU to force our government to stop letting the EU underfund science and get on with underfunding it itself.



Hana Jinks

18th August 2019 at 11:14 am

Brian is an emetic. Whenever my cats have furballs, l put him on.

Piper Lambrick

18th August 2019 at 10:16 am

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Jerry Owen

17th August 2019 at 7:01 pm

Do we need scientists now the science is apparently settled’ ?!

Anon Anon

17th August 2019 at 10:48 am

Ironically, years before the UK’s referendum on EU membership, EU science policy had faced serious criticism in leading scientific journals. See for example “All aboard the European Gravy Train”, published in Nature Reviews Microbiology. This article noted that EU science policy imposed wasteful bureaucracy and paperwork on researchers that was off-putting, leading many to question whether it was even worth while applying for EU funding. EU science funding programmes also placed “emphasis on collaborative projects that were carried out by unwieldy consortia with participants from different countries. In addition to being difficult to establish and often requiring ‘forced’ partnerships, grant reviewers were not free to decide whether the consortia contained sufficient participants from different countries”. The comment about “forced” partnerships is particularly interesting, and perhaps raises the question as to whether the EU has used its science funding policy to lever federalism, whereby large multi-EU-national projects are favoured over science projects based in a single country.

Reference: All Aboard the European Gravy Train, Nature Reviews Microbiology, 5, 654 (2007)

Bri -an

17th August 2019 at 10:47 am

Brian Cox is an excellent example of the eternal truth that there is no such person as a ‘scientist’.
TV personality, grant seeker, ‘Chief Scientific Officer, President of the Royal Society etc., etc. are just many of the disguises of those claiming we should ‘believe what they say’ because they are ‘scientists’!
Such people have ‘opinions’, which is just fine but their opinions have no value without evidence.
Evidence is the essential ingredient for something, anything, to be ‘scientific’. Opinions without evidence are just hot air.
Typically Chief Scientific Officer are just government wonks aiming to enhance the government remit.
Brian Cox is a first-class example of the ‘scientific opinion’ merchant, complete with expensive BBC graphics to support his scientific ‘opinions’, but without a shred of evidence for a ‘greenhouse effect’
The current, almost overwhelming pseudoscientific trope puts ‘carbon dioxide as a ‘greenhouse gas”(!). The whole concept of a ‘greenhouse gas’ causing ‘climate change’ has absolutely no evidence to support it.
The idea that any gas can behave like a volume enclosed by glass is utterly absurd. only true ‘flat earthers’ and merchants of ‘perpetual motion’ machines’ are promoting the dangers of this quite imaginary ‘greenhouse effect’.
Sure climates change! The plural is intentional, there are many climates on Earth very, very different from each other, all related to the (local) input from the Sun and the presence of water.
CO2 does not have an effect on them that can be measured.
None of these many climates are in any way determined by the tiny (<500 ppm) fraction of CO2 in the atmosphere.
What is needed for 'evidence'. All claims, right from those made by Svante Arrhenius in his 1896 paper, are pure speculation without a scrap of evidence for the claims of 'temperature effects due to CO2' to support them
You should not be surprised that the claims about CO2 made by the UN (IPCC etc.) are all directly traceable to Arrhenius' 1896 paper.
Since this 1896 paper is completely free of any research, it is equally free of any evidence for 'climate change'.

steve moxon

17th August 2019 at 8:05 pm

Very well said. If D-Ream boy can’t even manage to read up a bit on climate science, when he’s a scientist himself, then how come he thinks he can get his head round finance, economics and politics, re which any sort of expert he ain’t. Judging by his inane TV documentaries, I’m not convinced he’s even so much as got his head round cosmology.

Bri -an

23rd August 2019 at 10:01 pm

“when he’s a scientist himself”
There is no such person as a ‘scientist’!
Only scientific (thus ‘tested’) evidence

Neil John

16th August 2019 at 2:04 pm

Working in UK Scientific research a percentage of my wages come from EU grants, a tiny percentage, a much larger amount comes from the US.
A lot of the ‘scientists’ complaining work in ‘soft’ pseudo-science areas which have become the extended campaigning arms of the ‘humanities’, they will suffer a potentially huge drop in ‘research’ income as their primary role is supporting the PC sophistry of the EU machine, no bad thing.

Ven Oods

16th August 2019 at 1:56 pm

Brian Cox is how Mogadon would appear if it were human.
But, as he’s big mates with the guy from the back of the Megabus, he must be alright, really.

Kent Willumsen

16th August 2019 at 12:51 pm

We need to control our own R&D funding.
Just looks at the H2020 project database on:
A little look around and I found this “useful” project so relevant for the EU and especially the UK:
“Strengthening primary healthcare delivery in Africa”

Neil John

16th August 2019 at 1:49 pm

Actually given the diseases emerging from Africa having a good primary healthcare system there is a benefit to the EU, even if there wasn’t a problem with uncontrolled migration. As this from 2006 illustrates

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 12:50 pm

These very clever people support Brexit; let’s hear more from them.

Gareth Hart

16th August 2019 at 9:08 am

I find there is a hunger for a technocratic form of Government from a number of scientists I have heard from post-Brexit and post-Trump. However, they don’t seem so keen to come out to the public with their true thoughts of the public (particularly of those they deem beneath them) and of how Governments (preferably across borders) should be run.

Jerry Owen

16th August 2019 at 8:59 am

Interesting article full of useful figures for later use when needed !
Brian Cox is to science the what David Attenborough is to nature .. a script reader.
I remember Cox when he was first pushed to fame by the BBC because of his ‘right on’ credentials telling us categorically there ‘was no life in the universe and we were alone’. Now he tells us there is a good chance there is life in the universe.
Why would anyone listen to such an arrogant flip flopping ‘scientist’ ?

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 1:15 pm

I cannot abide him; he looks as if he should be in a boy band.

Jerry Owen

16th August 2019 at 2:10 pm

Jane 70
That permanently fixed grin must be the stuff of nightmares for little toddlers.. I bet they hide behind the sofa when he appears, just like I used to when the cyber men on Dr Who appeared.
The daleks never scared me because I knew they weren’t real, but the cyber men were definately real !!

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 4:02 pm

Your reply to my comment: he’s the virtual Justin Trudeau of pop-science; the perfect physics prof tells it like it is. Ghastly.

Christopher Tyson

16th August 2019 at 7:46 am

I remember back in the 70s there were all kinds of anxieties about the ‘brain drain’ with all our big brains going off to live and work in America, how did that pan out. What is science anyway, at its most basic it involves getting some text books reading them, maybe scribbling down a few ideas that no one is interested in and this costs you (obviously text books can be pricey). But what we are talking about now is bells and whistles, promotions, eye catching and spectacular projects, and projects that will have financial returns. So science has become conflated and inter-mingled with R&D. Not only this but scientist now expect us to organise our political life in a way that benefits them. We can not make the case today for an independent, disinterested science whose interest is the objective pursuit of knowledge. The questions that we ask and the answers that we seek and the technologies that we develop are socially and politically determined. Scientist who believe that we should remain in the EU to benefit their own research has got above themselves and are defending a political status quo that benefits themselves. We need a new politics, some new questions and some new people to answer them.

Philip Humphrey

16th August 2019 at 7:16 am

I worked in commercial research for many years. When I began in the 70s big companies generally had a serious commitment to R&D. I saw it gradually being whittled away by commercial short-termism, government indifference, and the idea that you could get work done on the cheap abroad and in universities. The results from the latter were usually disappointing. Can’t say I remember the EU doing much to help, but we need a better attitude to research if we are to prosper.

Rod Conrad

16th August 2019 at 2:34 am

You obvious have no Fecking clue about research, money is only part of the equation. “Collaboration” , “meeting of minds” , “team work” are far more important. You think you can just throw money at it – solved. Research is group work. In your dreams it’s a scientist with a grant working in a lab like in the movies ….
Well maybe that is what it will be after Brexit ….

It’s Ok we can let China, USA and the EU do the smart stuff , we can invent brexit things like unicorn shoe polishers

Keith Young

16th August 2019 at 8:44 am

The scientific community includes both EU and non-EU scientists and technologists working independently and together on research projects. Research involves both parallel and collaborative working. Collaboration happens without requiring membership of a political union. If the EU is saying that they will no longer collaborative on science with the broader scientific community, one has to question their commitment to the scientific endeavour. However, this is not the subject of the article. The question being explored here is the extent to which UK scientists are dependent on EU-funded programmes, the impact that Brexit will have on that and how much we need to mitigate the effects. It is not an article about science itself, it is about the organisation of scientific funding. Prof. Cox’s contention that only scientists are allowed an opinion on that matter is entirely fallacious. I would expect a professor to understand that.

Jerry Owen

16th August 2019 at 8:54 am

So minds won’t meet after Brexit ? Will people not be able to travel to Europe and vice versa, or send emails or make phone calls or Skype, or write letters ?
Rod Conrad I award you idiot post of the day !

James Knight

16th August 2019 at 4:07 pm

Another small minded “little Europeaner” stuck in the past.

The reason is for academics and scientists campaigning against Brexit is indeed about much more than money. The conformist culture in our universities cannot be explained by EU funding alone. It is ideological. It is not loss of funding as such that concerns them, it is their world view is crumbling around them.

If a handful of bigots want to leave the UK, I don’t think anyone should lose sleep over it.

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