Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.

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Hate crime in 2016 – pre and post Brexit

by Stacey Dingwall

Alongside economic warnings and forecasts, a suggested increase in hate crime has been the social issue dominating headlines in the fallout from the vote to leave the EU in June. In the fortnight following the vote, the British Transport Police recorded 119 allegations of racist abuse and attacks on trains and at stations, which represented a 57% increase on the number of incidents recorded in the previous two weeks, and an 87% increase on the same period in 2015. Overall, according to figures released by the National Police Chiefs Council, more than 6,000 hate crimes were reported in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the month from 16 June. This is equivalent to more than 200 per day, and 20% more than the same period last year. In response, the new Home Secretary Amber Rudd has announced a review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) of how police forces in England and Wales respond to incidences of hate crime.

Brexit – the catalyst?

The decision to ‘Brexit’ has undoubtedly highlighted divisions in the country that some fear may never be healed. While it obviously cannot be said that only those with the inclination to commit a hate crime voted to leave, there are those who argue that the result has only served to ‘legitimise’ the views of those that do hold xenophobic views.

British politicians have been criticised by a UN committee on racial discrimination for their role in fuelling hate crime during and after the referendum campaign. The committee said that it was “deeply concerned” about the “divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric” employed by some parties, with the media also coming in for criticism of its negative portrayal of minorities, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. While it’s easy to think of examples of this type of rhetoric from Leave campaigners (e.g. Nigel Farage’s ‘breaking point’ poster that was reported to police for inciting racial hatred), it’s important to consider that prominent Remain figures – including David Cameron, who once described migrants trying to reach Britain as a “swarm” – may also be partially to blame for the situation. The new government’s failure to guarantee the future of EU nationals currently resident in the UK is creating further unease.

Hate crime in UK

Of course, Brexit is not wholly responsible for the increase in hate crimes recorded. Nor are migrants the only group to be victims of crime, although racial hatred accounts for 82% of hate crime recorded by police. This is followed by religiously motivated crime, homophobic incidents, transgender hate crime, and disability hate crime. While misogyny is not currently included in the official definition of hate crime, Nottinghamshire Police recently announced that they would begin to record such acts, including wolf whistling, as hate crimes. The police say this is due to the “unacceptable” experiences of women on a daily basis, and has the aim of helping more victims to have the courage to report incidents. The force also recently treated an attack against a teenager who identifies as a goth as a hate crime, following Greater Manchester Police’s decision to treat these attacks as such in 2013.

Underreporting of hate crime makes it extremely difficult to gain a picture of the true extent of the problem in the UK. The UK government’s recently published plan for tackling hate crime notes the discrepancy between the numbers of crimes reported to the police and those recorded by the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), which means that hate crimes are significantly underreported. The CSEW estimates that there were 222,000 hate crimes on average each year from 2012/13 to 2014/15, which represents a decrease of 56,000 since the previous period covered by the survey. At the same time, the number of hate crimes recorded by the police increased from 44,471 in 2013/14 to 52,528 in 2014/15, which the government attributes to better practice from the police and victims becoming more confident in coming forward. Nevertheless, the CSEW indicates that victims of hate crime are less satisfied by the response they receive from criminal justice agencies when compared with other forms of crime. Additionally, incidences of online hate crime are not covered by either sets of figures meaning that due to the dominance of social media, neither are likely to be truly indicative of what’s really going on.

Moving on from Brexit

In recognition of the need to record online hate crime, the Metropolitan Police announced earlier this month that it has received funding from the Mayor of London and the Home Office to set up a specialist team dedicated to identifying online abuse and supporting victims. The two-year pilot has been set up following claims by community groups that the present police response to a problem they view as being of increasing concern has thus far has been inconsistent.

Encouraging responses to hate crime at the community level can in fact be seen across the country. Post Brexit, EU nationals have seen demonstrations of support in the form of safety pins and messages of solidarity both on and offline. It can only be hoped that those criticised for exacerbating tensions within and between communities will start to follow these examples as we continue on in deeply uncertain times.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might like our previous post on the impact of Brexit on the Digital Economy Bill.

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