Scientists for Labour

Mrs May has forgotten the keys

In her rush to leave the house in Brussels, Theresa May has forgotten the car keys. The Brexit car will not start unless she takes the keys for future jobs and future industries with her. Those keys are a set of agreements and activities with 180 nations on science and technology.

With the dimmest of understanding of how the world works in the 21st century, May has reduced the EU’s international standing to a set of trade deals. “All we have to do is to replace the EU’s free trade agreements with UK-only deals like in the good old days of Empire,” she imagines.

While that is easier said than done, the fact is that trade deals are just one way in which European lawmakers have been trying to secure future jobs and industries. A “smooth Brexit” must mean that the UK replicates all the achievements of Brussels and Strasbourg in securing a prosperous future for all EU citizens.

The basis for a prosperous future lies in building the strongest possible environment for research, development and innovation. An example is the Information Technology industry: it all started with research at California’s Stanford University and the development of the transistor. On the back of that, Silicon Valley emerged next door and, now, IT employs millions of people.

No wonder the EU has developed links with about 180 nations for joint research, development and innovation. Brexit means the UK must now create all those links itself. Let’s look at these science and technology links.

Regional EU agreements with blocs in Africa; South East Asia; Central Asia; Eastern Partnership; Latin America and Caribbean; Mediterranean and Middle East; Gulf Countries; Western Balkans; Pacific.

Take Africa. Here, a joint “high-level policy dialogue” is underway between African and European science ministers along with the African Union and the EU. Set up in 2010, outputs include the world’s biggest radio telescope, developing new medicines and improving agriculture. But two legal instruments underpin this dialogue: the 2000 Cotonou Agreement and the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy. Smooth Brexit means the UK must replace both these agreements and the dialogue. Any other type of Brexit means the UK will lose out on working with what is likely to be this century’s fastest growing economies.

International EU agreements are in place with 20 countries: Algeria; Argentina; Australia; Brazil; Canada; Chile; China; Egypt; India; Japan; Jordan; Korea; Mexico; Morocco; New Zealand; Russia; South Africa; Tunisia; Ukraine; United States. Smooth Brexit means the UK needs new agreements first.

Who in Mrs May’s government is responsible for re-negotiating these international agreements? Which countries should be added and which should we abandon? Does Mrs May have a clue? How many years will it take to re-negotiate? What happens to UK science and technology cooperation in the meantime? How much effort will go into replacing extensive agreements with inevitably more restricted ones?

Development-related projects. The EU supports in some measure 971 research, education and training projects in 160 nations. A smooth Brexit requires the UK to set up a development fund for all these nations, to set up an investment bank to make development loans and to negotiate to ensure UK researchers can continue to participate in many of these 971 projects.

Consider one of these nations. French Polynesia is located in the South Pacific and has a population of 267,000 scattered over 118 islands. Surely, you would think, there is no UK involvement. So Brexit poses no problems. Right? Wrong. French Polynesia had no historic links to the UK. But now, thanks to the EU, we have extensive links to provide loans for environmental protection, to support development and to enable UK researchers to contribute to development projects.

However, it is not simply a matter of renegotiating project participation: projects also require facilities and resource networks. You need specialised equipment. You need access to data and materials. The term used to describe these things is “research infrastructure”. There are 46 different EU research infrastructures across all the natural and human sciences supporting researchers across the EU - and internationally. The UK is involved in 33 of these and provides headquarters for seven. Smooth Brexit means continuing participation in all 33 of these with no new restrictions on the movement of EU and non-EU researchers and their students to and from the research infrastructures.
Refashioning these links in a smooth Brexit strategy means Theresa May has a lot of work to do. Given enough time, it is not impossible. She and her government will be judged by their performance. Forgetting the car keys, however, is not the best possible start.

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