Edinburgh International Science Festival 2017 / Brexit: Boom or Bust for British Science?

Credit: Edinburgh International Science Festival

On the week that Article 50 was triggered, it could have hardly been more fitting that the 2017 iteration of the Edinburgh Science Festival kick things off on Saturday with a panel discussion on how leaving the European Union would affect British science. The auditorium inside the National Museum of Scotland played host to a distinguished panel of guests with unique insights from within the academic community on the matter. The panel consisted of Professor Andrea Nolan, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University, Dr. Rob Davidson, Executive Director of the campaign group Scientists for EU and Professor John Peterson, Professor of International Politics at the University of Edinburgh. The chair for the session was Dr. Simon Gage, director of the Science Festival.

After introductions, Dr. Gage began the session with a short speech giving a quick review of the history of the festival on its 70th anniversary. He spoke of its founding post-war values of collaboration and bringing people together and quipped that the discussion to follow may unfortunately depart from the celebrations of such themes.

The discussion began with fifteen-minute talks from each of the speakers. Professor Nolan spoke first, giving a well-researched review of the strengths of British science and crucially how dependant these strengths were upon talent mobility and ease of collaboration with partner institutions. It would be easy to fall into complacence with regards to the state of our science as a nation with 0.9% of the world’s population that produces 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited papers. However, as Professor Nolan argued, the ability to attract the best scientists to an outward looking society and the ability to conduct research that transcends borders are the essential underpinnings to this success.

Next to speak was Prof. Peterson, who told of his own experience of conducting research with EU partner institutions and using EU grants. It came as little surprise then that he echoed the message of Prof. Nolan of the unanimous benefits of participation and cooperation within the EU scientific schemes. He stressed that whilst the UK punched far above its weight in terms of its research output, the only way to compete with the research powerhouses of the U.S., China and India was to tap into a talent pool that extended beyond the shores of the British Isles.  

Last to speak was Dr. Davidson, who launched into the most passionate and emotive diagnosis of the outlook for British science of the panel. He cited an interesting case study carried out by the University of Sheffield that calculated that its some 8000 international students contributed £136,000,000 to the local economy in Sheffield, all the while removing very few employment opportunities from the residents of Sheffield.    

It was perhaps unsurprising that the three panellists were pessimistic about the outlook for British science after Brexit. However, when pushed for positives, Dr. Davidson discussed the potential opportunities that may present themselves once the United Kingdom is free of EU regulation. The most prominent of these avenues lie in stem cell and embryonic research, as the strongly opposing right wing in the U.S. and current European legislation prevents their respective rival institutions from investigating certain areas within the field. So, there may be a silver lining to leaving the EU, but to quote Dr Gage, ‘there is a list of potential opportunities arising from this process… but it isn’t a long one’.

This report was written by James Hitchen and edited by Teodora Aldea.

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