Brexit has finally happened and trade negotiations begin in earnest until the end of the year. But what is the likely impact to the UK’s science and technology sector, and what opportunities does it present?
That dramatic night on 23rd June 2016, when the UK voted in favour of leaving the European Union, may feel like a long time ago now, but it was this date that firmly established a shift in the dynamics of British politics.
Three-and-a-half years, two Prime Ministers, two general elections and endless arguments later, the UK has formally departed the European Union. Depending on where you get your news, you’ll have seen plenty already around the risks, benefits and opportunities this presents. But what of the UK’s science and technology sector, where Britain has long been one of the world’s leaders for its investment into research and development, world-class facilities and ability to attract talent?
It’s no secret that the UK’s science community has been a long-standing and vocal critic of Brexit. It does not operate within physical boundaries and is part of a truly global community, one that is constantly working together to innovate and move the industry forwards. This focus on collaboration will undoubtedly continue and recent announcements – taken at face value – will be welcomed, especially those relating to spending on research and development and attracting and retaining top talent. Boris Johnson has already signalled a commitment to ensuring the UK remains a leader in the field.
Take headlines around the intention to establish our very own Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), for example. The US agency paved the way for much of the technology we take for granted nowadays, from the internet and the personal computer through to GPS. While the impact of any similar initiative will be unlikely to have the same all-encompassing effect, the promise of research funding doubling to £18bn over the next five years, a dramatic reduction of bureaucracy and red tape and a commitment to highly ambitious projects could mitigate the Brexit downsides.
A fast-track visa system, to be kicked off this month, will be similarly welcomed. It paves the way for the finest minds to continue to invest their time and resources in the UK, while also tacitly acknowledging the need for Britain to continue to participate in international programmes. It will also ensure the country remains an attractive home for foreign direct investment, something that will be ever more vital post-Brexit.
But the risks are still substantial. One of the biggest worries comes down to regulations, especially in the event of a hard Brexit. The UK deviating to its own regulations will mean the development of new devices or the trials of multinational products will likely be moved elsewhere. Take the field of cell and gene therapy, for example. The process takes weeks to complete and requires rigorous testing, checks and standards being upheld by numerous parties. It’s clear co-operation with our partners in the chain is vital.
Finally, our government must continue to invest in the infrastructure innovation needs to thrive. It set out this commitment in its UK industrial and life science strategies, identifying the strategic importance to the UK economy of the science and technology sector. From the AMR Centre at Alderley Park through to the Advanced Care Research Centre in Edinburgh and the Francis Crick Institute in London, the UK is already home to many outstanding facilities that are leading the way when it comes to research and development. Maintaining this focus and commitment to investment is vital.
So how can we ensure that Brexit is a success for the science and technology sector? By continuing with what has made it great in recent years - investment in research and development, a commitment to helping the finest minds flourish and co-operation with our closest neighbours will be a good start.
Only then can we be sure that the UK science and technology sector maintains its position on the world stage.