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Collaborative approach to research under threat in post-Brexit era

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With so much agricultural research reliant on EU funding, Ewan Pate asks what Brexit means for this sector going forward in the UK.

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The UK is a leading player in crop research
The UK is a leading player in crop research

Agricultural research, vital to the future of the farming industry, is one of the main areas certain to be impacted by Brexit.

 

The UK’s farming unions have already voiced concerns about funding but it is becoming clear the issue is as much about people as it is about money.

 

Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre (JIC), Norwich, said: “Excellent science relies on the brightest and best minds working together.”

 

He made the comments in evidence submitted to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the implications and opportunities of leaving the EU for science and research.

 

It is hardly surprising Prof Sanders has concerns about the effect on scientists. Of the 303 staff at Norwich, 28 per cent are from the EU and a further 24 per cent from elsewhere in the world.

 

UK budget for science

  • The total UK budget for science is £4.8 billion
  • The EU contribution to UK science is £1bn
  • The British Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) is one of seven UK Research Councils. It spent £473m on research last year and supported 1,600 scientists and 2,000 research students
  • The BBSRC also spent £109.2m on agriculture and food security

The JIC, which specialises in crop research, is ranked by multinational media agency Thomson Reuters as the top performer globally as measured by publication impact. Prof Sanders says 21 languages are spoken across the centre’s campus on a daily basis.


In the House of Commons submission, he said: “Science is an international activity and we have many links in the EU and globally.

 

"These collaborations enable scientists to work together to build on each other’s findings, achieving much more together than they ever could have done alone. In 2015/16, JIC’s annual research funding came to £31 million, of which £2m, or 6 per cent, came from the EU.


Pointing to possible options, Prof Sanders said: “If we were no longer able to access EU funding, those collaborations would be put at risk.

 

"If, however, the UK remains part of the European Economic Area, as Norway and Switzerland are, we may still be able to benefit from EU research funding, but the UK would have to contribute to the EU’s research budget.”


Turning to staff issues, he added: “In order to maintain our status as a world-leading research institute, we need to continue to be able to hire the brightest and best from across Europe and the world.


“We would have concerns if immigration rules were changed significantly as part of leaving the EU. Scientific research is at its best when it collaborates and builds on national and international knowledge.”


Saying a return to the pre-EU days of 1972 is ‘not an option’, Prof Sanders said he has already seen resistance in the EU to collaborative projects involving UK research institutes, even before Article 50 has been triggered.

 

James Hutton Institute

The James Hutton Institute, based at twin campuses in Dundee and Aberdeen, also relies heavily on EU funding, with £3m of its annual £37m income coming from Brussels. Funds are split between crop science and land use research.

 

However, chief executive Colin Campbell agreed it was not all about money.

 

“Brexit, however it eventually transpires, has potential to have far reaching effects on science,” he said.

 

“It will be essential to recognise, preserve and enhance the great benefits we have thus far gained from the EU. These included the free movement of labour which provides mobility to the best researchers to work in Scotland and the UK, keeping our international lead in agricultural research.

 

“But the situation is also an opportunity to look at new ways of keeping the current and perhaps new international collaborations as part of the way we work. There are also opportunities to take a fresh look at policy and ask if it is fit for purpose and still meeting contemporary needs. This will need robust scientific evidence and analysis.”

 

There was, however, a caution about international, as opposed to European, collaboration.

 

“Farming systems in northern Europe tend to have a lot in common. There will often be a benefit in working closely with scientists from those countries as opposed to regions of the world where agricultural conditions are considerably different,” he said.

 

The Defra view

Although asked to comment on the likely positive or negative effects of Brexit on agricultural research, Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom said only: “Our continued investment in state-of-the-art science and technology is making our farmers among the most efficient and productive in the world.


“We are recognised as a global hub of agricultural research, leading the way in finding solutions to some of the world’s greatest agricultural challenges.”

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