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TAF Chair in The Engineer: “Brexit must take a back seat to EU UK scientific collaboration”

Despite Brexit, the coronavirus crisis should make us even more determined to ensure the UK continues to be at the heart of pan-European science collaborations writes Professor Marja Makarow in The Engineer.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, understandably, knocked Brexit off the front pages. But the UKs decision to leave the EU is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Firstly, it means the UK will probably be towards the back of the queue when a vaccine is eventually ready to be rolled out, while secondly – and more crucially for broader collaboration in science – it’s highlighting the impact of UK expertise being excluded from international research programmes.

Current best estimates put a delivery date for a vaccine 12-18 months away – beyond the Brexit transition period – meaning that the UK is likely to be outside the authority of the EU’s medicines regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA).  The frantic rush to be first in line to secure the vaccine has already prompted President Trump to try to secure exclusive supplies for the US, while the EU also wants to ensure its member states are at the front of the queue.

Both will offer more lucrative markets to a drug company or vaccine maker, with populations of 330 million in the US and 440 million in the EU, compared to just 66 million in the UK.  The pandemic has already delayed the ongoing Brexit negotiations – if they are further delayed and there is no alignment of some form with the EMA approval process, drugmakers will likely be minded to prioritise the EU market and seek EMA ratification first, rather than submitting a vaccine to the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency for approval.

So will this conundrum, and the potential fall-out, make the UK government think twice about cutting further ties with EU science?

Disease respects no borders, so collaboration across country and political lines is essential for tackling issues like Covid-19

The UK has a proud record of cutting-edge research and discovery in science and medicine.  The likes of Sir Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin), Dr Patrick Steptoe and Dr Robert Edwards (pioneers of IVF) and Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield (inventor of the CT scanner) have been responsible for some of the most ground-breaking discoveries and inventions that have revolutionised healthcare.  Scientists in Europe, like myself, have long valued collaborations with our UK counterparts because of such expertise. But last month, Christian Ehler, a leading German MEP, expressed the fears that many scientists across Europe share: that the disruption from the pandemic will lead to a failure to see out a Brexit deal by the end of the year, thereby isolating UK experts from future research programmes.

As Ehler said: “Current events only underline how important it is to have UK in the EU research programme.   We should do all we can do to get an agreement this year. UK researchers are already in a limbo state and are being excluded from consortia. This would get worse if there’s no deal.”

Disease respects no borders, so collaboration across country and political lines is essential for tackling issues like Covid-19. Many successful clinical breakthroughs in the past have been because of international partnerships and providing open access to fresh research data. Fleming may have made the initial discovery of penicillin, but teams from the United States got involved later, making it an international effort.  After the Ebola outbreak, collaboration between scientists across three continents resulted in a vaccine being developed.  The UKs scientific expertise therefore runs the risk of being sidelined at a critical point.

The state of limbo, borne from the Brexit talks, means that, as Ehler pointed out, leading UK scientists have already missed out on European funding – such as the €164 million the Commission announced earlier this month for companies with technologies and innovations that could help in treating, testing, monitoring or other aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The experience of Switzerland may provide a salutary tale for the UK.  A country with associated membership of many EU programmes, including science, Switzerland voted to curb immigration in 2014 and soon found itself locked out of Horizon, the EU’s research and innovation funding stream.  In the two years it took for the dispute to be resolved, the Swiss government stepped in to fill the funding gaps – just as the British government has pledged to do – but the impact on the Swiss research was significant, with a net loss in funding estimated by the Swiss government at €686 million.

Topping up lost funding, however, cannot compensate for the loss of crucial collaborative networks.  After 2014, Swiss researchers were frozen out of European research consortia, and the stream of scientists moving to Switzerland stopped. Levels of collaboration with the EU dropped ten-fold, according to EPFL, the research institute. Switzerland had ranked seventh in terms of EU collaborations, but it fell to 24th place after 2014.

The UK government has said that it wants to retain access to major pan-European research programmes at associate level, while, at the same time, restricting freedom of movement that is a fundamental value of the European Union. That might be difficult to attain, given that the EU has made it clear that the UK can’t cherry pick what it wants to be a part of, and what it doesn’t.

The hope among European scientists, however, is that Covid-19 may just focus minds that there are bigger things afoot here.  An old rule of thumb was that pandemics like this happen about three times every century.  But, since the turn of the millennium, the world has already confronted a raft of viral shocks, including SARS in 2002 and 2003, H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014 to 2016, Zika in 2015 and Dengue fever in 2016.  So, even when we turn the tide on Covid-19, the likelihood of another emerging infectious disease impacting us is high.  The world will be infinitely better placed for tackling such diseases if the UK and EU are able to continue to collaborate effectively.

Professor Marja Makarow is Chair of Technology Academy Finland awarding the Millennium Technology Prize for groundbreaking innovations.

Partners of the Millennium Technology Prize