Brexit threat­ens UK's rep­u­ta­tion for sci­en­tific re­search, watch­dog says

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Ra­jeev Syal

Bri­tain risks los­ing its rep­u­ta­tion as a sci­en­tific re­search pow­er­house as a re­sult of Brexit, the head of par­lia­ment’s spend­ing watch­dog has warned.

Meg Hil­lier, the chair of the pub­lic ac­counts se­lect com­mit­tee, said the gov­ern­ment was “sorely lack­ing” in the lead­er­ship needed to main­tain Bri­tain’s po­si­tion in ar­eas such as ro­bot­ics and cli­mate change af­ter with­drawal from the EU.

She was com­ment­ing on a re­port from the Na­tional Au­dit Of­fice (NAO) warn­ing of short­com­ings in lead­er­ship on ro­bot­ics and ad­vanced ma­te­ri­als re­search.

The re­port, pub­lished on Wed­nes­day, said the to­tal UK gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­ture on re­search and devel­op­ment in 2015 was £8.75bn, with min­is­ters an­nounc­ing last year that they would pro­vide an ad­di­tional £4.7bn by 2021.

It warned that Brexit could af­fect how UK re­search was funded in fu­ture, as Bri­tain was a net re­cip­i­ent of EU fund­ing for re­search, tak­ing in €8.8bn (£7.9bn) be­tween 2007 and 2013, com­pared with con­tri­bu­tions of €5.4bn.

The re­port found a risk that de­part­ments pro­vid­ing fund­ing did not have the “co­her­ent data” needed to iden­tify where Bri­tain is lag­ging be­hind or which pro­grammes could be hit by Brexit, to en­sure in­vest­ment goes to the right ac­tiv­i­ties.

Col­lec­tive ac­tion was needed to pri­ori­tise in­vest­ment in cli­mate re­search, ro­bot­ics and ad­vanced ma­te­ri­als, it said.

Hil­lier said: “As mem­bers of the EU, we have ac­cess to Euro­pean projects, free move­ment of re­searchers and bil­lions of pounds of in­vest­ment in the UK from the EU. There is a risk we could lose our edge as a re­search power as a re­sult of Brexit.

“In or­der to avoid that, we need strong lead­er­ship from gov­ern­ment de­part­ments. But, to date, in im­por­tant ar­eas like ro­bot­ics and cli­mate change, that lead­er­ship has been sorely lack­ing.”

Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “Some newer ar­eas [of re­search], in­clud­ing im­por­tant emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and ar­eas of na­tional im­por­tance, need more ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship.

“As a pro­por­tion of GDP, the UK spends less on re­search and devel­op­ment than many com­pa­ra­ble na­tions. Gov­ern­ment needs a co­her­ent view of the UK’s re­search strengths rel­a­tive to other na­tions and anal­y­sis of fund­ing in key ar­eas of re­search, so it can pri­ori­tise ar­eas where ac­tiv­ity is lag­ging be­hind.”

Ac­tion is needed to pri­ori­tise in­vest­ment in cli­mate re­search and ro­bot­ics, the Na­tional Au­dit Of­fice has said. Pho­to­graph: Getty/Blend

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