Email of the day
Comment of the Day

October 26 2016

Commentary by David Fuller

Email of the day

More on EU Brexit anger (note, emails are usually posted anonymously but this is an important follow-up from Dr David Brown’s online email posted yesterday, where subscribers who post emails are also named.  

I thought subscribers might be 'amused' by the article copied below which was published recently. The author is a British lady, hailing from the Plymouth area, and she worked for a while in the hi-tech cluster around Cambridge before moving to Brussels. If one is looking for evidence of the 'anger and fear' of the first stage mentioned above, well here it is.

One can sympathise with her angst as she sees her apparently secure career potentially undermined after Brexit, if not before. But one can only wonder how she thinks this hysterical writing will help her gain employment back in the UK. 'Throwing toys out of the pram' comes to mind.

Her prospects apart, I can only assume her text reflects the mood in Brussels. If any subscriber has direct contact with Theresa May they may wish to forward it to her!

In the Brexshit, by Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network.

Her comment on the impact on UK science and our universities does need answering. It is far from the black and white she suggests. Generally 5 of our universities rank in the top 10 in the world, with the remainder of Europe struggling to make the top 20.  It is often asserted that the UK's leadership depends on EU funding - if so why have other countries not kept up with the UK? It is also often asserted that the UK has received a higher percentage of funding from the EU for science than other EU countries. Our universities were strongly in favour of 'remaining' and Cambridge, where I live, was one of few cities returning a majority for 'remain', along with London.

However, the facts are not so clear. A House of Lords report published in April before the referendum states "Despite many assertions that the UK performs very well in terms of EU funding for science and research, it has proved challenging to define unambiguously the level of EU spending on R&D in the UK and how this compares with other Member States." That blows one huge hole in the statement made by Claire Skentelbery.

And the universities themselves are beginning to change their tune. The Russel 20 group is the 'trade body' for the UK's top 20 universities. Its chairman Sir David Greenaway has this week argued that a world where the UK is no longer part of the EU will give universities the freedom they need to exceed expectations.

Another blow for her article is the unmentioned fact that a country does not need to be a member of the EU to access research funding. The House of Lords report states: "Access to many research infrastructures is available to non-EU Member States in continental Europe as well as to countries outside Europe. We found there to be occasional confusion with regards to which infrastructures are EU-managed and which are European in nature." Matt Rigby has written and presented extensively on this misconception which continues to be perpetuated by remainers.

The House of Lords report also states:

"While the UK science community was enthusiastic about EU membership, we have uncovered some qualifications. We heard mixed views on the impact of EU regulations. The benefits of harmonisation were widely recognized but some specific areas, such as genetic modification and clinical trials, were highlighted as causing UK business and research to be disadvantaged compared to competitors outside the EU."

In my own field of research, some EU regulations have been highly damaging to the UK's science base. Problems were highlighted by this article published by the FT 3 years ago: Drug test rules ‘would eliminate biotechnology sector in UK’.

Professor John Bell of Oxford University recently pointed to other damage the EU has done to UK science in an article published by the FT in which he explained the destruction of the UK's leadership in human clinical trials of new drugs. 

He writes about Brexit:

The opportunities in this new world extend well beyond funding issues. The cultural, ethical and philosophical environment that supports science is in many ways fundamentally different in the UK compared to many European countries. Britain is more inclined towards a relatively liberal risk-based regulatory environment that allows fields to move quickly — to reflect on ethical issues but not to over-regulate.

The EU, by contrast, has a record of deep regulatory conservatism, attempting to legislate and control many aspects of science that are not deemed here in the UK to present a significant danger. Consider clinical trials. In the early 1990s Britain was recognised as one of the best places in the world to test new drugs on patients. Decisions were quick and bureaucratic obstacles were few.

The introduction of the European Clinical Trials Directive in 2004 ended all this.

Needless regulatory hurdles associated with huge inefficiencies and delays in effect killed off the clinical trial industry in the UK, where it declined to just 2 per cent of global trials.

Maybe now we can regain our leadership in clinical research.

Finally, to address the issue of movement of scientists into the UK after Brexit, it beggars belief to think that skilled scientists would be denied entry. That seems highly unlikely to me.

In summary, there are gains and losses for UK science from EU membership. As you know, I voted 'remain' but only just, it was a close call. Brexit is certainly not 'all loss' as portrayed in Skentelbery's emotional and uninformed article. I am sure that UK science can thrive outside the EU once emotion fades and transitional issues are resolved.

David Fuller's view

Thank you so much David.  On behalf of all subscribers you have generously offered a valuable service in speaking out on this issue.  I hope readers will repost or forward this email to anyone who may be interested in it, from politicians, including the Prime Minister, to university professors, Brexiteers and also Remainers.      

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