Keep science on the horizon

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Science  15 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6428, pp. 671
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw9290

Science is a global endeavor that affects well-being and stability on many fronts, so anything that damages the scientific enterprise in one country, particularly a powerhouse that is internationally networked, damages conditions everywhere. As the United Kingdom tumbles toward the 29 March Brexit deadline, the world should feel uneasy, at the very least. Paradoxically, science has never been high on the Brexit agenda likely because there is general agreement among politicians on all sides that good science relations are in everyone's best interest. Thus, the United Kingdom does not have a plan in place for preserving science. Everyone who cares about the future of science needs to continue to make the case for the smoothest transition on 29 March—whether there is a deal or not—so that U.K. science and global science do not become accidental victims.


U.K. science has always thrived on its internationalism. It has been open to the brightest people, inviting them to work alongside home-grown talent on innovative ideas. One in six academic staff in U.K. higher education institutions are from the European Union (EU). At the same time, the United Kingdom has exported talent around the world to learn and collaborate. Support for leaving the EU has remained spectacularly low in the U.K. science community. And yet, 6 weeks from now, science may suffer collateral damage due to the very complex politics of Brexit. A no-deal Brexit is the worst scenario. It would damage the United Kingdom's ability to collaborate and to access hugely valuable funding from EU research schemes. And it would send a message, intentional or not, and true or not, that the United Kingdom is no longer the open and welcoming country that it has always been.

A substantially better, if not optimum, scenario (which is arguably no Brexit at all) would see the United Kingdom effectively stay in Horizon 2020 during a transition phase, where researchers would continue to move freely among countries for jobs and collaborations. Horizon 2020 is the largest EU Research and Innovation program ever established, providing nearly €80 billion of funding from 2014 to 2020. Leaving the EU without a deal may jeopardize the United Kingdom's access to the €1.3 billion that it has been receiving each year through this program.

What about Horizon Europe, which will raise EU science spending to approximately €100 billion over the years 2021 to 2027? For the longer term, the United Kingdom should ensure the closest possible association with Horizon Europe and a sensible approach to immigration so that scientific progress continues smoothly. For overseas researchers who have jobs or grants that bring them to the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom must make it easy for them to bring their families and members of their research teams. The immigration system also must allow people to come and go on short-term visits for conferences or as part of collaborations. At the same time, the EU will have to ensure that Horizon Europe strengthens its international focus and remains open to genuinely constructive association status.

No one wants collateral damage to science, but that does not mean that it will not happen. Preserving Horizon 2020 and planning for Horizon Europe are actions that are distinctly possible with the correct political will. Four months ago, 35 Nobel laureates and Fields medalists wrote to President Juncker of the European Commission and U.K. Prime Minister May, expressing concerns about the potential downside to European and world science if Brexit leads to a situation where the free interchange of science and science funding is threatened. National and global voices must assert more strongly that science is a high priority, and that no matter what the situation is come 29 March, the scientific enterprise must not be a victim of the political fallout.

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