Why does Brexit matter to the UK, and why is China important?
The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a complex challenge that matters to me as a scientist and to us all as global citizens. The isolation of the UK from its European partners will, among other things, greatly impact its ability to engage with global scientific collaboration, a prospect that should concern us all.
The UK has a long-standing reputation as a global leader in scientific research and innovation. In 2017, the UK was second globally in its science and engineering scholarly output (in terms of an H-index of 1281, behind the US with 2077 and only just in front of Germany’s 1131). This is a position it risks losing if the foundations of its science base are damaged by a hostile departure from the EU.
So, why is the UK’s scientific base so dependent on relations with its neighbouring EU states?
As demonstrated recently by the Royal Society, the UK is heavily reliant on collaboration and free-movement with the EU, with over half of the UK’s PhD students and 29% of the UK academic workforce coming from overseas. As most academic researchers will contest, innovation in science and technology is often born out of international collaboration, with UK scientists commonly working with colleagues in the EU, the US, and increasingly, China.
By leaving the EU on poor terms, the UK risks being excluded from essential funding programmes such Horizon 2020, as well as damaging its currently lucrative science and technology sectors. For example, the UK life sciences sector recently hit a record turnover of over £70 billion, with small and medium-sized enterprises accounting for 82% of businesses and 24% of all UK life sciences employment. Even more importantly, the UK received the highest level of life science foreign direct investment projects in Europe in 2017, and the highest in 7 years.
Education continues to be one of the UK’s most valuable industries, with universities generating £95 billion for UK economy in 2014-2015 as concluded by Oxford Economics for Universities UK. Furthermore, international students generated £25.8 billion of gross output in the UK through in terms of spending of them and their visitors, in the process supporting 250,000 jobs.
Clearly, the EU and the rest of the world contributes significantly to the UK’s science and technology sector and to the country’s economic success, which is why the question of its stability post-Brexit is important to consider.
Whilst this complex relationship develops in the West, a very different scenario is playing out in the East.
In the past decade, China’s has climbed to second in the global publication citation league table, behind only the US. China has more science researchers than any other country, but there are still reservations concerning the quality and inventiveness of research output. As Xi Jinping, China’s leader, encourages: “Scientists should be allowed to freely explore and test the bold hypotheses they put forward”, such that science policy is instead created by scientists. While this might seem like a novel idea to the West, China has a long-standing history of technocrats in leadership positions, arguably one of the reasons why the country has been able to innovate and develop and such a fast pace in recent decades.
What’s important to remember is that science policy is a balancing act between supporting basic research that enhances our understanding as a human race and the translatable research that directly supports technology and industry. Both are important, but in times of economic uncertainty a government will prioritise the latter, which can have a huge impact on scientific research.
This is why international collaboration is vital.
Innovation in science and technology is often born away from the pressures of financial success – ironic, considering that such breakthroughs are economic and political assets. As China seeks more innovation, international collaboration offers a solution for countries like the United Kingdom.
At this time of increasing political isolation, collaborative channels must be kept open for researchers and their institutions. For the UK, it is more critical than ever that collaboration thrives, as this is a key contributor to the quality of our research output.
Free movement for researchers must be retained, and as we distance ourselves from our European neighbours, we stand to gain a lot from a closer relationship with our Chinese partners during their exciting time of expansion and growth. Stronger cooperative ties offer great benefits to the UK and China, both in the short term and in the construction of our future political climate.