With the election results now on the table, it is time to respond to these questions. Or at least to try.
A few days before the British referendum on continued British membership in the EU, I wrote about the position taken by distinguished members in the world of science and innovation. I also wrote about the underlying questions which could lead to a process such as Brexit in the European system of R&D. The vote against continuing to be a part of the European Union is generating the first tangible reactions: plummeting stocks, the falling rate of the pound, and willingness by the EU to accelerate the process and redesign a new Europe without the British. Within the world of science and innovation, the consequences are not as fast, but at this very moment those responsible for the R&D policies at the EU level are analysing how Brexit will affect projects currently underway.
The United Kingdom provides 11% of the total budget for the leading European R&D programme Horizons 2020, while receiving returns of 16%. UK universities alone have received £5.000M in financial support for research through this channel. The consequences for their R&D groups and centres are clear: backing out of European competition will force a resurgence of national calls in times of recession throughout the entire system of Western science and technology. Even with continued funding, these projects will receive less money and will surely be less ambitious than those organised by international consortia. The result: a harmful impoverishment of the system in every sense.
Other European R&D programmes in which Great Britain has had a leading role, such as the European Research Council (receiving the most funding) or the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, will be affected by the UK’s exit from the EU. The impact will affect not only British researchers, but the entire European system. The free movement of people and talent, critical to the advancement of scientific knowledge, will collide with a closed door on the Atlantic border. Minister of Finance George Osborn has estimated nearly £100,000M in budget cutbacks in 2020, funding now repurposed to deal with Brexit. It appears more than likely that universities and research centres will be hardest hit by the cutbacks.
From a business perspective, prospects are not much better: for decades, London has been the city of choice for the European headquarters of thousands of technology-based companies. One example is the digital industry, which constitutes 10% of British GNP, much of which stems from foreign business activity conducted in the city. And the majority of the workers are, by the way, not British. Various media companies, such as Forbes magazine, are considering moving their headquarters to other cities such as Madrid, Berlin or Dublin, in order to escape the tariffs which will be imposed on British commerce with the EU. We are talking about a sector which provides 1.5 million jobs in that region, over 300,000 of which live in London, according to data provided by the BBC.
For those companies that are 100% domestic, the outlook is not much better. Just think about how much we will have to pay in export taxes to technology companies such as Rolls Royce or British Telecom, whose greatest market lies on the other side of the Channel.
A paradox of life: next month Manchester will host ESOF, the EuroScience Open Forum, a European convention for science and innovation. In an era of open innovation and collaborative processes to strengthen research and development in Europe, we will lose an important partner. Science is not entirely compatible with passports and customs. Knowledge weakens in the face of border-related legal quibbles, as many of us in this field know all too well.
Nevertheless, I would like to think that we will be able to manage the bilateral agreements needed to maintain an unencumbered relationship between Spanish and British researchers. One of the goals we must face, and to our mutual benefit, is to establish a joint framework of work for universities and research centres. Many analysts speculate that the massive vote supporting Brexit among voters over 50 years of age was a determining factor in the development and future of those younger than 30 and more favourable to remaining in the EU. Looking at it from the perspective of the world of science, something similar seems to have occurred. Many voices publicly manifested their opposition, but the force in the vote of hundreds of thousands of their countrymen has banned them from the strongest R&D model in the world.
Article published on Sunday 19 June at the Innovative supplement of El Mundo: