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The European Medicines Agency Is Moving On, And Theresa May Wants To Turn Her Back On Europe - But Science Can't Afford To Be Left Out

03/08/2017 11:42 BST | Updated 03/08/2017 11:42 BST

Yesterday's announcement of the candidate list of cities applying to rehome the European Medicines Agency brings home the brutal reality of Brexit; our colleagues around the world are preparing for it, even if our Government is stubbornly refusing to yank its head from the sand and instead indulges in factional infighting rather than policy-making. Since the beginning of the year, I have lost count of the number of times that I have been contacted by academics, scientific institutes, research centres, tech companies, medical charities and university departments over their concerns for their sectors post-Brexit - it's real, and it's now.

This isn't just about the European Medicines Agency itself, or the Horizon 2020 programme, or the European Research Council, or the Community Plant Variety Office (yes, who knew? Brexit hits plant-breeders too, although Michael Gove probably didn't know that last year) - the list goes on. It is about all of these issues, and the fact that there is no coherent Government strategy for supporting our scientific community, which exists collaboratively and globally, through the huge upheaval that is being caused by the process of starting to exit the European Union. In a recent Parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community, I argued that May's fetished antipathy for the European Court of Justice is suffocating our discussions on the ways in which to progress on these issues for the good of science in the UK.

Previous Parliamentary debates have highlighted the importance of the European Medicines Agency to both Life Sciences and the medicines sectors, along with wider issues of attracting and retaining talent. The EMA itself employs nearly 1000 highly skilled staff, and its move will be a blow to wider pharma as well as London's economy. But an effective fightback has been mounted by the Life Science sector as evidenced by the recent letter of reassurance by Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt in the Financial Times - an unusual way of making policy announcements for senior ministers. Maybe they are following the Trump model of using unorthodox channels of communication, or just reflecting the chaos characteristic of policy-making on both sides of the Atlantic. The threat, however, is very real and immediate. While swathes of scientists consider their future career options and look ahead to their next promotion and figure that the British Government has made them neither welcome nor secure, both EU, international and home-grown talent will prepare to migrate abroad to less muddied waters, leaving UK science and technology at risk of losing its current pre-eminent global position.

It is not enough to simply give ad hoc assurances of 'associate' or 'linked' or 'similar' membership to EU-wide scientific organisations or communities. Yes, this may provide a short-term fix, or allow a slower transition from member to onlooker, but it is not an adequate permanent position. Are we naïve enough to believe that as organisations develop and plan for the years and decades ahead, our interests will be taken into account when we have no voice or negotiating delegate within the discussion? Is it not inevitable that once we have left the room in which decisions regarding our future are made, the interests of others will take priority? To contribute to the future of an organisation, one needs to be part of it, and to throw any full membership opportunity away is to leave the UK's scientific communities interests at the door.

The future may be theoretical - but the reality facing the EMA is now very real and immediate. The issue is not just one of geography. The complex relationship between the EMA and our own Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MRHA) is subtle and complex, and severance will impact both. Perhaps over the summer recess, Ministers can reflect on this, and in the autumn we can move forward in a more constructive way. The UK science and research eco-system is very successful, but also complicated and fragile, and UK future success cannot be taken for granted - losing the EMA is just the first in a series of major challenges ahead.