Brexit and Marine Science: Is the Picture Any Clearer?

Opinion by Dr. Matt Frost, Marine Biological Association Deputy Director, Head of Policy and Knowledge Exchange, and President Mars (European Network of Marine Institutes and Stations)

In August 2016, I submitted the Marine Biological Association’s (MBA) response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry ‘Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research’. Since then I have written articles, given talks and run workshops on marine science and Brexit, always with the hope that the next time I was invited to contribute to the debate the picture would be clear as to the terms in which the UK would be leaving the EU.

It is therefore with some degree of frustration that more than two years after the referendum, marine scientists, along with the rest of the science community, are still only looking at ‘potential scenarios’ when trying to plan for the future.

It is notable, however, that the conversation has shifted in recent months from discussions over ‘Norway’, ‘Canada ++’ and other types of trade deals to focusing on what happens if no deal is reached at all. To this end, since August 2018 the UK government have published 105 technical notices on the implications for a ‘no deal’, seemingly indicating that this outcome is now a real possibility. Some of these ‘no deal’ technical notices deal with science funding, which, along with the status of EU marine scientists working in the UK and issues around marine environmental protection, has been a central concern for marine scientists. With many marine science organizations reporting between 10 and 25 percent of their income in recent years as being from the EU, it is no surprise that ensuring access to these funds is continued or, alternatively, that other funding mechanisms are established has been a frequent topic of discussion.

A key issue is that, according to these technical notices, although researchers could continue to receive money from the EU framework program such as the upcoming Horizon Europe (albeit on a ‘third party’ status), other types of EU funding such as the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Grants will not be available. A number of UK marine institutes currently benefit from ERC funding with the MBA alone holding two ERC grants, representing a significant proportion of its income for marine research.

It was good to see the announcement of £1.6 billion for science and innovation in the UK’s Autumn 2018 Budget Statement, but there is no indication of how this will be allocated, and marine research often struggles to articulate its importance alongside other priorities despite the huge economic and environmental benefits that investing in marine science is likely to bring. Arguments over the potential impacts of Brexit on marine science funding have been well rehearsed, and how you feel about the eventual outcome – be it positive or negative - will probably reflect your political views and who you are willing to trust in lieu of any definitive decisions or information.

The one thing that is clear is that the ongoing uncertainty is not helpful for UK marine organizations as they develop strategies to meet future challenges. For example, discussions are already underway between UK scientists and their European colleagues on the imminent Horizon 2020 call for project proposals to examine ‘Inter-relations between climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem services’.

UK scientists can only hope that our European colleagues remain open to UK scientists contributing and potentially leading bids when our future links to these programs are so uncertain. Whatever the outcomes of the Brexit discussions, marine science will not stop being highly interdisciplinary and collaborative by nature, and big issues such as how to use the marine environment in a more sustainable manner whilst developing the blue economy will still need to be addressed.

The plea from the UK marine research community is only that whatever the outcome, the UK will be able to maintain and enhance its reputation as a world-class leader in marine science, for the benefit of science, the marine environment and wider society

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