Just before the recent elections that saw Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party ravage both Labour and the Conservatives, EU leaders signed off on an ambitious science funding programme for €100bn – which if there was a no-deal Brexit British scientists would be barred from accessing.
The EU’s Horizon 2020 programme will fund science innovation from brain science, to quantum computing; from 5G, to batteries for renewable storage. The new science programme is vital to spurring a new industrial infrastructure revival – one the UK would be excluded from if a hard Brexit becomes a reality.
Faced with economic stagnation, rising populism and escalating climate disasters, the EU science plan is a no-brainer that leverages an age old reality: the driving motor of economic prosperity is the curiosity that propels scientific innovation. But a hard Brexit could prevent British scientists from accessing this crucial funding.
The continued pursuit of no deal is about to torpedo a core basis for British economic vitality. Perhaps that is why on 17 May, the same day the Conservative government’s Brexit talks with the Labour Party collapsed, the government quietly but officially withdrew a document published under Theresa May’s predecessor David Cameron, extolling the critical role of science innovation in Britain’s economy.
The document makes clear one thing: hundreds of billions of dollars invested into the UK could be at risk if Britain is no longer seen as a safe environment for science innovation. This would not merely knock Britain off its world leadership perch for European scientific innovation. It would leave Britain out of one of the most exciting science funding programmes in recent years, one designed precisely to help plug the gaps of previous EU efforts.
Horizon is the ninth instalment in the EU’s research funding scheme, established in 1984, which cultivates large cross-border collaborations. Science works best in this way because it allows the fruits of curiosity to be harvested. Horizon will also be launching a new European Innovation Council to help finance start-ups and entrepreneurs pioneering commercially innovative ventures.
Two years ago, an interim evaluation projected that Horizon would generate at least €400bn in economic gains by 2030 – a colossal 400 per cent return, that Britain will have no part of under a hard Brexit.
This all isn’t to say the EU’s science policies have not been without flaws. Compared to the US and China, for instance, Europe is still lagging behind in science investment. The commitment to Horizon was what remained when the European Commission decided to cancel €3bn’s worth of flagship science projects in May.
The EU’s investment in the clean energy transition is also still wanting, and has meant that the rate of adoption for renewables has slowed down in over half of EU countries. EU efforts to leave coal behind, while commendable, have been similarly misguided. To meet the goal, the EU is switching increasingly to questionable dependence on “biomass”, which often relies on burning massive volumes of wood – which scientists warn is terrible for climate change. This underlines the need to switch to the sort of innovative clean tech the Horizon programme will focus on.
Another self-defeating policy is the EU’s recent block on palm oil for biofuels from multi-billion dollar trade partners Malaysia and Indonesia. Ostensibly aimed at stopping deforestation, scientists say that a complete ban (as opposed to robust regulation) will increase deforestation in the Amazon, because continued rising demand will be displaced onto intensified rapeseed and soybean production, which uses four to ten times more oil per unit of land. So this potentially worsens climate change while endangering the EU’s trade with Asia – fast becoming a hub of science innovation. These faults are all the more reason for Britain to remain engaged with the bloc.
In fact, these decisions seem to be symptomatic of the same “head-in-the sand” approach that drives the thinking that being separate will lead to a better future. The idea that nations should go it alone, shut down trade and collaboration to “protect” themselves, rely on outmoded technologies like fossil fuels, and pretend there’s no such thing as the Information Age (social media memes notwithstanding).
Against these glitches, the EU’s decision to fund Horizon is a breath of fresh air inspired by a sense of possibility for a future that promises to kick-start the innovations we need to sustain prosperous societies.
The EU is by no means perfect, but it made the right choice. So, will Britain? Will it continue to play a leading role in helping to fix the glitches and enhance that future? If it does, it would be part of a platform that will provide billions in revenue, millions of jobs, and education for the next generation of innovators and discoverers.
Sounds like a no-brainer to me.
Vincent McCarthy is director of Curiosity Studio and co-founding CEO of The Festival of Curiosity, which is Dublin’s international festival of science, arts, design and technology with over 45,000 attendees each year