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7 September 2017

The Brexit paper on science reads like a bad Taylor Swift break-up song

I don't like your little games... The role you made me play.

By Jason Murugesu

This week the Department for Exiting the European Union published a paper outlining its vision for future collaboration between the EU and the UK on “major science, research, and technology initiatives”.

The paper has been criticised by scientists as vague and unrealistic. It also fails to reassure the science community over financial commitments to Horizon 2020 (the EU’s biggest research and innovation fund of which the UK is a major recipient), or the status of EU researchers already working in this country. 

Simultaneously conceited and forlorn, the paper appears to have taken inspiration from the work of Taylor Swift – as just like the pop star’s songs, there’s lots to read between the lines:

The document starts with a series of boasts

Just so you know… we have “four of the world’s top ten universities” and “with only… 4.1 percent of researchers, the UK accounted for 15.9 percent of the world’s most highly cited articles in 2013”.

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This is a confident start. Though it does fail to mention how much of that success has been built on the work of EU or cooperation with EU institutions. 

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Look, we don’t need your money – we have our own

“Furthermore, this Government’s manifesto made a commitment to raise research and development (R&D) spending as a proportion of GDP to 2.4 percent by 2027, and to 3 percent over the longer term”.

While welcomed by scientists, some, such as the deputy director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering Naomi Weir, doubt whether this increased investment will make up for the uncertainties thrown up by Brexit.

You need us more than we need you

“The share of EU co-authored publications in the top 10 per cent of highly cited publications is higher when collaborating with the UK.

“The UK is a top five collaboration partner for each of the other 27 Member States”.

This message seems at odds with the Government’s leaked Brexit immigration papers which, say “wherever possible, UK employers should look to meet their labour needs from resident labour”. Who are all these UK researchers working with non-resident labour?!

Remember everything we’ve been through

“The UK and the EU start from a position of close regulatory alignment, trust in one another’s institutions, and a spirit of co-operation stretching back decades.”

Which is all be in jeopardy as a result of one relationship-ending vote. The paper cites the success of partnerships between the UK and EU countries on medical research, the space program and civil nuclear research. It does not outline how the government hopes to retain these partnerships outside the EU, only that they hope to do so. 

We’re special – you know we’re special!

“Given the UK’s unique relationship with European science and innovation, the UK would also like to explore forging a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country.”

The paper makes several references to precedents set by partnerships between the EU and other non-EU states, but here seems to suggest that not only is it a given that the UK will receive similar treatment post-Brexit, but can somehow expect a more a favourable one. 

You’re not like the rest of them

“The government has made clear that, although freedom of movement will cease to apply in the UK, the UK will continue to welcome the brightest and best, and as such, migration between the UK and the EU will continue after the UK leaves the EU.”

Ignore our leaked immigration documents that say we don’t want you to be joined by your family here. They’re not the “brightest and the best” – you are! Michael Arthur, the Provost of UCL (one of the four top universities mentioned by the government earlier in the report) recently said that 95 per cent of his senior researchers had been approached by other European institutions. 

We won’t be messed about with

Looking ahead to a strong future relationship, both the UK and the European Commission have been clear that they expect the fair treatment of UK researchers and firms.”

No indication of how the Government expect to ensure this “fair treatment”. Maybe they should read Trump’s “The Art of the Deal”. Talking about America… 

We don’t even really need you

“Some of the UK’s most important collaborators lie outside the EU, notably the US (as the UK’s top research partner), Australia, China, Canada and Japan.”

The paper points out that the Government is investing £100 million into the Rutherford Fund to attract researchers from countries such as India, China and Brazil. The potential loss of £1bn from the EU’s Horizon 2020 project was not discussed…

Much like Taylor Swift herself, the UK government seems convinced that whatever the impact of ending this intense relationship, our scientists will simply be able to Shake It Off.