By Max Thompson, University of Kent
As a PhD student with an interest in science policy, I was very excited to get the chance attend Parliamentary Links Day 2017. The subject was global opportunities and UK science, which sounded to me like it would entail a lot of discussion of Brexit and general policies which influence the internationalism of UK science, something which I feel very strongly about. The day itself was quite a change from a usual day in the lab and I had to dust off my suit and remind myself how to tie a tie the night before. Once I made my way through the airport style security into Portcullis House the day itself started with a much needed coffee. On initially entering the room I had felt a little awkward but within a minute or so I found a table other attendees and struck up a conversation. A few of the people I spoke to had attended the previous Links Day, held only a few days after the Brexit vote went through and described a somewhat tense and dramatic event, very much in the shadow of the Referendum result. I was keen to see how things had progressed since then, and to get a sense for the general feeling in the room. Although the Brexit issue had been settled for a year and allowed some time for emotions to cool and plans to be made, our Links Day came not long after the recent election which – as some of the speakers acknowledged – introduced a little uncertainty into the political situation in the UK once again.
Once our caffeine and sugar levels had been sufficiently topped up, we settled in for the actual event in the packed Attlee suite. The speaker of the house John Bercow gave a spirited and warm introduction to the room, stressing the importance of science in state schools among other issues. The event took the format of a series of speakers giving their thoughts on engagement with the rest of the world and UK science generally, followed by two panel sessions in which the panels discussed engagement with the EU in the first session and with the rest of the world in the later session.
Generally speaking, a few main themes emerged from these talks and discussions.
Brexit still looms large over UK science
Particularly in the panel sessions and in the questions asked by the audience, it is clear that the potential effects of Brexit on science is still the principle policy issue occupying the minds of many scientists. There was widespread support for guarantees to be made about the status of EU nationals who are currently working in UK labs, as well as making efforts to ensure that international mobility for academics is maintained including specific suggestions such as removing international students from immigration statistics. Concerning figures were presented by speakers representing Italian and Spanish scientists which suggest that in each case, 70-80% of researchers from these countries in the UK are considering leaving it with (in the case of the Italians) 85% of those people changing their mind about staying in the UK on the basis of the Referendum result. Brexit was described as a “shattering blow” to EU collaborations by one speaker, with fears of general xenophobia beyond direct policy issues making the UK less attractive to foreign researchers being voiced by members of the audience.
On the positive side of the issue, it was clear from the Minister of State for Universities, Science Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson’s speech that the government, or at least aspects of it, are well aware of these issues and are seeking a resolution to them. He also made the welcome announcement that funding for the JET nuclear fusion project would be maintained and signalled a willingness to maintain UK funding for EU collaborations, although specifics for that will need be confirmed in the future. He also discussed changes to UK science funding which have the potential to make positive change if fully enacted.
The formation of UKRI and increases in the science budget
The first keynote speaker was Sir John Kingman, the Chair for the newly announced body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Although it isn’t fully formed yet, the UKRI is proposed to bring together the seven different Research Councils currently directing much research funding in the UK. The big idea is that this ‘super research council’ will enable more interdisciplinary science and a more strategic and joined up approach. This is now due to be accompanied by an increase in the annual spend on science funding. Jo Johnson stated in his speech that there has been a period of government underspending on science, which is below the levels of funding which are seen in peer nations such as Germany, however this is due to change. Both the conservative and the labour party have now committed to targets to raise the science budget as a percentage of GDP, from current levels of about 1.7% up to 2.4% (Conservative target) and 3% (Labour target). While these are targets and we need to wait and see what happens, it shows an increased awareness of the importance of science by both parties and is a welcome development nonetheless.
This is certainly an interesting time in UK science. A few of the speakers spoke of the need to ensure that the changes, which are inevitably coming to UK science, are predominantly positive and of the need to focus on the opportunities as well as the challenges ahead. One thing that was agreed on is that if the UK is to maintain its considerable strength in science, the next few years are very important.