Jeff Tallon: Threat of 'Techxit' grim for science

The door to joint projects like the European Space Agency's landing of a space-craft on a comet could be slammed on British scientists as part of the Brexit. Photo / AP
The door to joint projects like the European Space Agency's landing of a space-craft on a comet could be slammed on British scientists as part of the Brexit. Photo / AP

Jeff Tallon is a physicist specialising in superconductivity.

So the wheels are now rolling for Britain's exit from the European Union. The impacts are bound to be substantial. But one withdrawal "symptom" overlooked in most commentaries is the potential impact on British science and technology, and the fallout for New Zealand researchers who collaborate with British scientists. Brexit probably also results in "techxit".

Somewhere between 18 and 20 per cent of all monies returning to Britain from the EU go to support research, science and technology programmes. That's $2.5 billion per annum and on a per capita basis would be equivalent to injecting an additional $175 million into the New Zealand research environment.

Two takeaways from this: firstly, Germany receives much the same RS&T investment from the EU even though its economy is 35 per cent larger, so Britain does very well out of this.

It's over half what the British government spends on research through its research councils which administer university and industry research funds.

Secondly, an extra $175 million per annum in the New Zealand research sector over and above what our Government spends would be transformative. At more than three times what is currently allocated by the Marsden Fund it could, for example, lift the current success rate for applicants from a dismal 7.7 per cent to 33 per cent - about what it should be. As it is, our overall research investment, as a fraction of GDP, has been falling since 2010.

So the question is: what will happen to this large incoming research, science and technology investment when Britain moves out of the EU?

Some may be replaced by redirecting the annual subs Britain pays to the EU but, given that Britain gets back nearly twice what it contributes for research, given the demands for desperately needed expenditure elsewhere, and given the inevitable ensuing British economic recession, it will be only a fraction.

And it is not just about money. There are many large-scale European research facilities that Britain currently has automatic access to. There are exchange programmes, mobility programmes and general access to national facilities in member countries.

The New Zealand public will know two of these large collaborative projects well: the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) where the Higgs boson was discovered (Higgs was British), and the European Space Agency (ESA), which in 2014 pulled off a spectacular space-craft landing on a comet - the Rosetta mission.

These are just two examples of a wide spectrum of ambitious programmes in these two agencies. The annual budget for CERN is $1.6 billion and for ESA is $8.2 billion not including the capital costs of construction. Single nations cannot hope to carry out this sort of costly research.

There are many other large projects, including the European Consortium for the Development of Fusion Energy (Eurofusion), the European atomic energy community (Euratom), the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC), the European Human Brain Project; the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Grenoble, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility also at Grenoble, the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, for neutron studies, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology in Budapest, the Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) based in Ispra, Italy, and the Institute for Energy and Transport (IET) based in Petten, The Netherlands.

Of course there will now be a major effort for the UK to renegotiate some level of access to these programmes. After all Switzerland is not a member but through RS&T agreements is able to participate in research programmes as if it were. Indeed CERN lies on Swiss soil. But already there are signs of a tough stance by the EU to discourage other members from leaving. These negotiations will be "hard mahi", working from a position of weakness.

Britain is still an intellectual and scientific powerhouse. Cambridge and Oxford Universities still sit within the top 5 or 6 universities in the world rankings, jostling with MIT, Harvard, Stanford and CalTech. But Cambridge and Oxford gain the overwhelming benefit of being able to select their graduate students from amongst Europe's best. Just how the closing doors of Brexit will play out in the mid to long term for these universities remains to be seen, but their respective governing councils are deeply concerned.

It also remains to be seen how this will impact on New Zealand researchers linked to British scientific programmes. The paucity of major research facilities and infrastructure here has naturally led our scientists to collaborate internationally, and here the historical ties with Britain are strong. Travel grants are available via international agreements but the success rate is dismal, like the Marsden Fund around 7 to 8 per cent.

The EU offers substantial travel fellowships, such as the Marie Curie Actions, which are open to researchers worldwide to travel to institutions in Europe. Under Brexit the UK will lose its status as an EU research destination.

These depressing challenges for British science will be repeated again and again across a broad front of economic and societal relationships with the EU. It will be little surprise that many of my UK research colleagues have joined the now millions who are petitioning Westminster for a second referendum. As a Kiwi with a British passport I will be joining them.

- NZ Herald

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