Brexit could be an opportunity for science
The new government is poised to revitalize Britain’s tremendous track record of scientific discovery, which runs deeper than EU funding.
British scientists are worried about Brexit. On the face of it, their concerns seem justified. The EU currently supplies one-seventh of our research funding. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the concern is that this could vanish, disrupting projects and triggering a brain drain, as researchers leave the UK for countries where they stand a better chance of getting funding.
Yet how likely is this in reality? In practice, when it comes to deciding who should be allowed to compete for EU-funded research, membership of the EU is not an essential precondition for access to EU funding and research partnerships. The quality of national research plays an important role as well.
How else do you explain the 423 research projects the EU has awarded to Israel in the last year? Britain’s position at the top of world university rankings means it will continue to be a desirable research partner for EU institutions, regardless of Brexit.
Another question rarely asked by the UK research community is how much we would miss EU funding if we had to do without it. How to allocate research funding is a complex problem, but there are some things the UK Research Councils get right: they remain committed to funding basic science, and applications are lean, accessible and have a reasonable chance of success. None of these things can be said of EU funding.
One problem with EU funding, at least from the UK point of view, is that it is skewed towards the political objectives of the EU. For example, the 10 most recent calls of Horizon 2020, the EU’s main science funding programme, include “Affordable high-tech for humanitarian aid”, “Innovative batteries for e-vehicles” and “European low-cost space launch”. While these may be worthy initiatives in themselves, they are outcome-led investigations tied to political aims. Equally, there’s nothing wrong with political initiatives per se, except that when research becomes heavily politicized, this comes at a cost to basic science.
One of the great strengths of UK science, which has made us a world leader for the past four centuries, has been its openness to research that is not tied to any objective. Curiosity-driven science, also known as basic science, has time and again led to the most far-reaching breakthroughs. Gravity, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, antibiotics, the structure of DNA – our knowledge of all these things is rooted in research done by scientists who were allowed to follow their curiosity.
To their credit, the UK Research Councils continue to make space for this kind of work: their Standard Research funding scheme specifically allows for submission on any topic at any time.
Another problem with EU funding is that applying for it requires a lot of work with a small chance of success. The average success rate of Horizon 2020 is 12%, compared with 32% for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – the UK council that funds my own field of physics. A typical Horizon 2020 application is over 40 pages long. By contrast, Research Council applications are a mere 13 pages. Poor reward-to-effort ratios like in Horizon 2020 are a blight on the lives of many scientists, who spend more time applying for grants than doing research.
In fact, when it comes to winning EU grants, the probability of success is sometimes so low that we would arguably be better off burning the money and canceling the competition than encouraging so many scientists to waste so much time. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider the following scenario.
Imagine a grant competition for €400,000 with a 10% success rate. Assuming it takes six man-months to write and evaluate an application, this requires five man-years of effort for each grant awarded – not to mention the additional support costs of any business. What is the opportunity cost of all this effort?
At least as high as the value of the grant itself. And for Horizon 2020, this is not far from reality. In some areas, the chances of success are even worse: for the popular open call on future and emerging technologies, for example, it’s just 2.9%.
Of course, there is room for improvement in the UK, too. For one thing, British universities currently have a monopoly on academic research, receiving 98.4% of the last £5 billion of grants awarded by the EPSRC. This is in contrast with other countries at the forefront of science, whose more diverse research ecosystems accord significant funding to private research institutes, where researchers can devote themselves full-time to research.
Second, UK funding agencies lack a sense of urgency. It takes at least a year to get a research project funded and up and running, whereas new technologies now come to market in months. There is no good reason for the pace of scientific discovery to lag behind that of technology. The Research Councils could help shift this culture by adopting much faster turnaround times.
The UK could also award larger, no-strings-attached funding to skunk-works style institutions with a track record of success. This would give them the freedom to pursue more ambitious discoveries, rather than following the diktats of funding bodies.
One agency that does approach discovery with the urgency it deserves is DARPA, part of the US Department of Defense that funds high-risk, high-payoff projects that other funders often won’t touch. I have seen DARPA’s ambition and speed up close when it sponsored several projects at the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences. The UK opportunity for science would benefit from an independent science funding agency, along the lines of DARPA, with a specific emphasis on research that is high-risk and broad in scope.
There are signs that the current government is well-disposed towards revitalizing Britain’s tremendous track record of scientific discovery. The Prime Minister’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, has suggested that UK science funding should support “high-risk, high-payoff visions, including creating whole new fields”.
There is no reason that Brexit need have a harmful effect on UK science. Instead, it could help catalyze a national debate on how to reorient the organization of scientific research towards more basic science, dedicated private institutes, faster funding and high-risk projects. Xerox PARC’s Alan Kay famously said “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. If Downing Street acts to put these principles into practice, the future will be a better place for it.