As we wait for Brexit to be triggered, it might be worth reflecting on how far reaching today’s events might well be to the future of science and technology research in the UK. Recent UK government proposals have already left many in science and technology research worried. The proposals have only offered funding increases to the private sector in the form of tax incentives and subsidies. Brexit uncertainty will only make an even greater struggle to present the UK as a place to do research. This is especially true for citizens from the other 27 EU countries. Scientists hoping for a “soft Brexit” are now bracing themselves for much disappointment as European funding dries up.
Now President Trump proposes drastic changes to public funding for research. Controversy surrounds the new President who has previously described global warming as “very expensive bullshit”. He has also made Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of this reverses the advances made under President Obama, with sweeping cuts potentially leaving environmental and climate programmes in major retreat. This leads to the questions: might this be the end of both countries as powerhouses of science?
That might be overstating matters but researchers certainly have a lot to be concerned about. Several large science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based businesses are looking to move abroad. Lobby groups like Scientists for EU have been understandably vocal as European Research Council (ERC) grant applications are already being rejected. A drop in applications by EU students to science based degrees is also seen as a worrying trend. It might also have a considerable knock-on effect for the crucial British STEM industry.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has condemned Trump’s proposals as plans to cripple science in the US. Programmes run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are said to be affected, threatening research into cures for diseases, new forms of energy, technological leadership, and training for future scientists.
Dr Rush Holt, the AAAS’s chief executive, has said that “The Trump administration’s proposed budget would cripple the science and technology enterprise through short-sighted cuts to discovery science programs and critical mission agencies alike.” Dr Holt has appealed to Congress for help: “We encourage Congress to act in the nation’s best interest and support sustainable funding for federal research and development – for both defence and non-defence programmes – as it works to address the 2018 budget.”
International collaboration could also be harmed by Trump’s travel ban. Some researchers won’t leave the US because they fear they might not get back through visa control.
Further uncertainty surrounds British science because of the squeeze to climate research over the Atlantic. Prof Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, recently said in The Guardian: “Everything we do is international, and we particularly rely on American satellite data. Perhaps we could manage if other areas were cut – perhaps the Chinese or the Indians might even step in to fill the gaps – but we would definitely miss the satellite data from the US.”
The only optimism comes in the form of developing new technology. In the spring budget announced by the UK government, funding of £270 million was promised for research and development into electric vehicle batteries, drug manufacturing technology, and artificial intelligence. The government also wants to see development in robots for work in space, offshore energy, nuclear power plants, and mining. The pressure to keep this up will be high for the UK to remain a leading light in the STEM sectors. There might even be opportunities to exploit America’s current upheaval as researchers might look to move to countries with a more science-friendly governments. It is a reminder that Brexit and Trump don’t just threaten political and social upheaval. The instability is far reaching, with countries such as Russia and China positioning themselves to exploit the lack of American leadership in science and technology.