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Why the UK and EU must come together on R&D to save the world

Image credit: Donfiore/Dreamstime

Fictional superheroes may be able to stand alone, but in the real world of research, international collaboration is vital to tackling the big issues facing the world.

In an opinion article for the Daily Telegraph published in June last year, Boris Johnson suggested that his government would restore the UK as a “science superpower”. Envisioning himself as a caped crusader with a bold B for Brexit branded on his chest, Johnson has continued over the last year in his attempts to push to restore the UK to its former scientific glory, bringing the ‘super’ back to UK science.

In the same article, Johnson expressed how we are all “so deeply and so obviously indebted to science – and to scientists”. The comment was largely made in reference to the work of scientists throughout the Covid-19 crisis, and how they came to the rescue in our hour of need by navigating us through the pandemic and providing us with a vaccine. But the same goes for other critical areas of work, from artificial intelligence and climate change to the broader health concerns associated with an ageing population.

The importance of research and development (R&D) in science and technology clearly cannot be overstated. Or perhaps it can. Following a fallout with the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol, British scientists and academics now face becoming Brexit collateral, excluded from an all-important £80bn programme and its massive pool of funding and collaboration opportunities.

Instead of looking to fix the relationship, the government believes the UK can go it alone, announcing new funding to fill the gaps the fallout will sew in local R&D in attempts to downplay the move. But that misses the point entirely.

Clearly, the government has fallen for a common pop culture misconception of scientists as ‘lone geniuses’, hunched in a dark basement over sprawling test tubes, or sitting contemplative beneath an apple tree. Boris Johnson’s dream of the UK becoming a “science superpower” reflects this belief, conjuring images of a lone superhero staring out over their city, ready to save the world – like Batman and Gotham City.

In truth, both conceptions are off. Just as Batman is not a lone vigilante – think of the assistance he receives from Alfred, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, even his own nemesis, Catwoman – science and R&D are not possible without extensive collaboration among experts and financiers. Cross-border collaboration is particularly vital to address some of the biggest challenges we face as a species, whether it’s climate change and achieving the energy transition, biodiversity loss, food insecurity, pandemics, or new threats surrounding cyber and artificial intelligence. The recent restarting of the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator exemplifies the scale of international collaboration big research projects require.

Boris Johnson himself has said that these are “knotty problems”, but many hands make for light(er) work. The more critical and complex an R&D project is, the more it requires external expertise and resources. And we’ve clearly got a lot of critical and complex projects on our hands. 

Without multi-national input and collaboration, the impact of R&D projects trying to solve these mammoth problems will fall short. Of course, the UK will lose funding, but our exclusion from Horizon Europe won’t just hurt the UK. The EU will suffer the loss of the UK’s extensive talent, facilities and financial resources, and wider progress towards solutions of global importance will be hampered, to everyone’s detriment. 

The UK also faces the very real risk of a brain-drain, with experts warning that British scientists and R&D specialists are getting ready to pack their suitcases if the UK shows no signs of re-entering the important and prestigious programme. The UK will lose its lead on ground-breaking research projects, slowly eroding its standing in the science and R&D arena altogether.

At the end of the day, no superhero is effective without the support of a network, including its superhero peers. The UK will never be scientifically ‘super’ without the support, knowledge and resources of the EU and the wider world. At a time when we all need to be doubling down on science, innovation and technology, as opposed to falling out and going at it alone, the UK and EU must put their differences aside for the benefit of all. If they can work together, they really might just save the world, but if they don’t, they’re risking the lives of everyone.

Mark Smith is partner of innovation incentives at Ayming UK.

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