The Brexit issue is still not closed after three years of complex negotiations; while waiting for the results of UK’s general elections fixed on the 12th December, the new deadline has shifted at the 31st January 2020. In the mean time, the debate on the post-Brexit future of UK’s science is flourishing. A report published by the Government compared the country research base’ statistical release with those from all G7 countries, Brazil, China, India, Russia, South Korea and other international benchmarks.

According to the report, UK’s field-weighted citation impact has ranked 1st in the G7 every year since 2007. In 2018 the country produced 7% of all publications at the global level (third after the US, 22%, and China, 19%), a percentage increasing to 14% when considering just the most high-cited ones (vs US 37%, China 20%). In a twenty years period (1998-2018) the proportion of UK’s publications based on international collaborations has doubled (55% in 2018 vs 26% in 1998). UK is the second most internationally collaborative country in the G7, after France (56%) and significantly higher than the OECD average (31%).

Ambitious goals for the future of UK’s science

The possible future scenario for British science was considered in a report commissioned by the Government to Professor Sir Adrian Smith (The Alan Turing Institute) and Professor Graeme Reid (Chair of Science and Research Policy at University College London), published at the beginning of November. 

The initiative aims to provide independent advice on the design of potential future UK funding schemes for international, innovation and curiosity-driven blue-skies research, in the case it would not be possible for the country to continue with the association to Horizon Europe. The exercise is not trivial as, for example, the authors have been struck “by evidence across regions of the UK of the ways in which strands of EU structural funds and regional development support have been combined with research and innovation funding to play a vital role in developing local economies”. 

The ability to attract and retain the best international talents is a prerequisite to maintain UK’s scientific leadership at the global level. The suggestion advanced by the two independent experts is, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, to maintain the same level of investment as the country received in the past from participation in EU programmes (around £1.5 billion/year) and to use such funds to stabilise and protect the internal R&D environment and to built new forms of international collaboration (not only at the European level). The Brexit should represent in any case an opportunity to boost UK’s ecosystem for research, without disruption of existing activities in the case of a hard exit. 

The new vision depicted by the report includes the creation of an international version of the highly successful UK Research Partnership Investment Fund to attract foreign direct investments, a coherent Global Talent Strategy, combining reforms to immigration policy with a suite of fellowship and post graduate programmes, the availability of substantial additional funding for basic research, and a flagship programme of research fellowships offering large awards over long periods of time for exceptional researchers. 

Several options have been also provided on how to manage administrative structures supporting investments, among which international partnership with funding agencies and businesses are the preferred ones. A possibility would be for the UK to create a “bigger and brighter” global rival to the European Research Council (ERC) in the case of a hard Brexit, says an article published on Science|Business. This new entity would be managed by an international organisation and would be open to both UK and international scientists.

The chair of the UK House of Common’s science and technology committee, Norman Lamb, also commented before 31st October the possibility of a no-deal exit in an interview to Science|Business, during which he said to be confident “the country will eventually gain full access to the 2021 – 2027 EU research programme, Horizon Europe“.

Comments from the pharmaceutical industry

The Smith-Reid review received comments from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical industry (ABPI), which represents one of the main investors in UK’s economy with £4.3 billion spent in R&D and 63,000 people employed. “This report is clear on some of the things that need to be done, if the UK wants to keep one of its most valuable assets”, said Dr Sheuli Porkess, Executive Director, Research, Medical and Innovation at ABPI.

The Association mentions the 13,000 project participations and around €5.9 billion in funding from Horizon 2020 (13.5% of the total, second to Germany; data June 2019). The requests of the pharmaceutical industry in view of 31st January 2020 remains the same: to negotiate a continued access to long-term European funding and collaboration programmes for science, a continued participation in the European Investment Bank and European Investments Fund (including a seat at the Board), an agreement to facilitate the movement for highly skilled talent across borders, a UK immigration system needs-based, straightforward and rapid.

The future legislative framework for medicinal products and technologies is one of the most delicate issues to be addressed in negotiations, as it may impact citizens’ health at both sides of the Channel. According to ABPI, the UK should seek to negotiate alignment and commonality with the EU for the regulation of medicines, through a regulatory cooperation agreement or a mutual recognition agreement with EMA. Focus should be paid to the continued alignment of current and future regulations as well as the continued UK participation in EU regulatory and medicines safety processes. 

The impact of the unwished scenario of a no-deal Brexit on the British healthcare system has been also deeply examined by Steve Brozak in an article published on Forbes.

A manifesto to support the biotech sector

The UK BioIndustry Association (BIA) has launched a biotech manifesto in view of the general election of 12 December, with its recommendations on how political parties can support the innovative UK life sciences sector. “This general election is an opportunity for political parties to back this exciting sector”, said Steve Bates, Chief Executive of BIA.

According to the manifesto, UK’s biotech employs over 250,000 people (two thirds outside London and the South East), with a yearly contribution of over £30 billion to the UK’s GDP. The Association asks the government to continue pursuing the target of R&D representing 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (and 3% in the long-term). A long-term investment plan to be published in 2020 would help increase the sector confidence to make R&D investment commitments in the UK. SMEs should continue to be supported by the Biomedical Catalyst, an initiative that should be re-filled by the government, that should also encourage pension schemes to invest more in the UK’s innovative young businesses.

The manifesto confirms the request for regulatory alignment already seen above, and asks for new modalities to assess medicines to enter the NHS that would not prioritise cost-effectiveness over a more holistic understanding of real-world value and the wider impact on patients’ quality of life. The appraisal system should be more flexible, suggests BIA, not to act as an undue barrier to patient access, particularly recognising the data limitations for rare diseases.

The position of the Royal Society

Many British scientific associations are working to maintain the leadership of the country in R&D, and supporting its competitiveness at the global level even in the worst scenario of an hard exit from the European Union. 

The Royal Society (RS), for example, also aims to keep highly-skilled scientists already working in the UK and attract new talents, while at the same time ensuring access to money and scientific networks and maintaining regulatory alignment to allow access to new medicines and technologies.

According to the RS, in the case of a no-deal exit the UK could lose access to over £1 billion a year in EU research funding, a sum that could decrease to half a billion with the UK government’s guarantees. The impact on research underway in the UK would be immediate, while the implementation of new alternatives may need years of time.

Costs may also have a great impact on families of foreign researchers remaining to work in the UK, should the government apply immigration charges to EU nationals, based on the current system. The Royal Society estimates that an EU academic with a partner and two children entering the country on a 3 year Tier 2 visa would have to pay upfront costs equivalent to 20% of their annual salary. Data show that currently 18% of academic researchers active in the country come from the EU, 13% from extra-EU countries; this ratio inverts (35% from non-EU countries and 13% from EU) in the case of post-doc researchers.