Prospect: Brexit shows clearly why science needs a collective voice

Sue Ferns

The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have unleashed an unprecedented wave of change for Britain. Nowhere is this starker than in the future of Britain’s science and innovation.

The values that go to the heart of science – the pursuit of evidence, value of expertise, openness and collaboration – are challenged by Brexit. None of this is helped by the confusion in government and ideological battle about how hard Brexit can be.

Brexit also shows the need for scientists to get organised. Alongside our valued national scientific institutions, there is need for a collective voice for scientists and researchers. Or, as we say in Prospect, science is a trade union issue.

It’s why the Trade Unions Congress will be discussing science at its annual meeting this week in a Brexit motion brought forward by Prospect.

Brexit has brought real uncertainty for many working people, especially the 50,000 people Prospect union represents in the science and technology (STEM) sector.

Nearly one-in-ten people working in science and technology were born in other EU member states. Prospect is hearing time and again about the uncertainty they now feel over their future in Britain.

Uncertainty is matched by anger. Anger about how people are being treated, about the confusion from government and against the rising in xenophobia and racism that has been brought about over the last 18 months.

But uncertainty over science doesn’t just affect EU nationals working here. The whole sector relies on collaboration, funding and accessing the skills it needs from Europe.

For example, in 2015 British institutions received €1.21bn from the EU’s main science project Horizon 2020. This was, in cash terms, the highest amount received by any member state in the whole EU. Although the government has begun to suggest it will guarantee some of this funding after Brexit, it is a long way from making sure all of it is covered.

Funding aside, international collaboration increases the impact and value of British research and development. For example, British papers with international co-authors have around 40 per cent higher citation scores than those without.

There is also real uncertainty over Euratom too. Euratom is the organisation that coordinates European work in the nuclear sector and on the same day that parliament triggered article 50 it also decided to leave Euratom too.

Most people will not be too ware of the work Euratom does but a good example is the Joint European Torus (JET) project. The project it is at the heart of research into harnessing energy from nuclear fusion, a potentially revolutionary new clean and abundant source of energy.

The JET project is based at Culham just outside Oxford, however despite the government guaranteeing some funding for it, it has not yet explained how it can continue to host the project outside of Euratom.

So why is the government so intent on leaving Euratom? In short it is because of its commitment to a hard Brexit. A dispute in Euratom could potentially be referred to the European Court (the ECJ). However the reality is that very few cases have been referred to European courts and those that were were not particularly contentious.

So an almost entirely ideological red line over the ECJ in this case looks likely to damage both science and the economy.

This week, Prospect will ask the TUC to oppose a hard Brexit and to support a campaign to protect the rights of EU nationals working in Britain, protect support for the STEM sector and maintain membership of Euratom.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that hard Brexit will be bad for working people.

Unions like Prospect will not be shy in making that clear to government until they are forced to change course and guarantee the things sectors like science really need. It’s time for science to make its voice heard.

Sue Ferns is deputy general secretary of the trade union Prospect

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