Brexit’s ‘benefits’ are becoming clearer: getting back what we had before

There’s a famous and controversial scene in the film Fight Club where Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler, briefly threatens to kill a grocery clerk and then lets him go, ‘’granting’’ him the gift of life. It played to a wide variety of reactions among audiences.

Some loved it: the clerk had been shocked out of a life that he didn’t want, and thanks to Tyler’s unorthodox methods could lead one of clarity and purpose. Others felt that two bad things had happened to the unfortunate clerk. He had been held hostage in a car park, probably giving him PTSD, and then had to endure a lecture from his pompous assailant.

I was reminded this week of Tyler’s speech to the clerk, Raymond K Hessel, when Rishi Sunak announced two pieces of good news. The first was that as a result of a deal he has cut with the EU, Northern Ireland would have the “unique” advantage of having access to both the UK home market and the EU single market — an “unbelievably special” position which made it “the world’s most exciting economic zone!” Or, in other words, Northern Ireland has what the UK once had, before Brexit.

The other good news is that the UK will be able to rejoin Horizon, the EU’s €96bn science programme. Under this arrangement, before Brexit, we had received a disproportionately large share of the bloc’s science funding. But for the last two years, as arguments raged over the Northern Ireland protocol, we have been shut out.

Scientists here in the UK had caught a glimpse of life outside the programme, and seen that it is very cold. Aside from the money (researchers have been unable to apply for crucial grants), science is inherently collaborative — and without Horizon’s ties, collaborations between EU and UK scientists started to break down. Then there is the UK’s scientific standing. There are three main science groupings in the world — North America, China, and Europe. Left out, it is hard to be considered a major science nation. “You’re sort of floating out into the cold north-east Atlantic,” as Professor Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate, has said. Some scientists have left the UK altogether.

Like Hessel, British scientists are expected to be grateful to cling on to what they already had — indeed, a sigh of relief has been breathed in labs everywhere. International co-operation will never again be taken for granted —scientists can extend their child-like sense of wonder from the workings of the universe to the workings of EU funding schemes.

But like Hessel, they would be forgiven if they were a little annoyed at being put through this near-death experience in the first place, and to feel they are still owed reparations.

When Britain left the EU at the end of January 2020, researchers were assured that this did not mean leaving Horizon. Then the government assured the scientific community that they would not lose out even if the UK did leave. The uncertainty that followed has done considerable damage: the volume of UK applicants for research funding dropped. “It’s a vicious downward spiral, where uncertainty breeds declining engagement, which then decreases the theoretical drawdown of this money through the UK guarantee”, James Wildson, a scientist at UCL, has said.

There’s a further question. What of the money put aside for Horizon — and not spent — over the last two years? It has been revealed that £1.6bn earmarked for the purpose has now been quietly returned to Treasury coffers. The Government promised to use the cash to make the nation a “science superpower”. but as yet no lab has seen it. If the money is coming, the lack of communication to scientists is its own failure. Projects need to be planned.

Yes, scientists have their Horizon project back, or almost. Some say it will take several years for the links to be rebuilt and collaborations to get going.

Of course this is good news overall, but even if Horizon is completely restored, the damage UK science has sustained from Brexit remains. Perhaps most importantly it has made it difficult to hire and retain international faculty members at universities — as well as talent at student levels. Some 40 per cent fewer EU students applied to British universities in 2021 than in 2020 — choosing countries like Germany and Canada instead.

Top research teams need the best talent and precocity is not attractive. Addressing this is the next step towards making us Sunak’s ‘science superpower’.