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UK science faces huge uncertainty post-Brexit

There are two key steps that the new Government can take to mitigate the risks to UK science posed by Brexit: protecting the free movement of researchers, and maintaining access to European research funding. Let’s be clear: this can be achieved outside of the EU. Non-member states, for example Norway, can participate in EU funding programmes as “associated countries”, paying into the programme and receiving access on the same terms. Yet full “associated” status requires acceptance of free movement of people: will this be acceptable to the new UK government, or will a new, unique relationship need to be negotiated?

The European Union has done a lot to support ecological science in the UK. Last year, with the Royal Society of Biology, we responded to a House of Lords inquiry on science and the EU, and our members provided a wealth of examples of fruitful research collaborations, funding success, investment in facilities and the benefits of free movement of people and ideas.

Is science already feeling the impact of Brexit?

It’s no surprise that the ecological research community, as with scientists across the board, have reacted to the referendum result with deep concern. We are facing huge uncertainty, and despite the Science Minister’s assurances that it is “business as usual”, the impact of ‘Brexit’ is already being felt. Stories are emerging – confirmed by discussions I’ve had with our members - of UK teams being discouraged from leading or participating in collaborative European funding bids, for fear of undermining the chances of success.

These concerns about scientific funding and collaboration matter for the environment. Effective international collaboration is required to tackle global ecological challenges, from climate change to invasive species. Our response to these challenges, at both a national and global level, must be informed by the best ecological science. This scientific evidence base is strengthened by networks and structures – like those provided by the EU – that foster international collaboration and the free exchange of ideas. It is vital that the UK scientists’ ability to work in partnership with colleagues in the EU and beyond is not compromised.

A new challenge for expertise?

While the immediate risks that Brexit poses to ecological science are clear, the outcome of the referendum should also be cause for deeper reflection. The vast majority of scientists – usually seen as a trusted group – supported a Remain vote, as did most environmental professionals.

Yet the majority of the voting public was at odds with this view. A narrative of having had “enough of experts", be they political, economic or scientific, developed throughout the campaign, reflecting the alienation from the prevailing political and economic establishment expressed by many leave voters. Is science, as the Chief Executive of the British Science Association has suggested, out of touch with the wider public? The Leave vote represents a clear challenge to the scientific community.

It also represents a challenge for those of us who promote the use of scientific evidence as the basis for sound environmental policy. While our position will not change - we must retain the successful elements of our current, EU supported policy framework, and ensure any legislative changes are informed by the best ecological evidence – we might need to think slightly differently about how we communicate that message.

Should we pay more attention to dialogue with the public, rather than communicating to policy makers? Do we need to better understand how people’s values inform how they interpret environmental and scientific messages? How can we make science, and conservation, more accessible to a broader range of people?

As well as our immediate and important concerns over collaboration, funding and environmental protection, these questions must inform our response in the months ahead.

Ben Connor

Policy Manager, British Ecological Society

Find BES on Twitter @BESPolicy

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership