THE BLOG

Science And The Brexit Mountain

27/02/2017 14:11 GMT | Updated 27/02/2017 14:11 GMT
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I'm a fan of the three rules of mountaineering: it's always farther than it looks, it's always taller than it looks, and it's always harder than it looks. They apply to any risky venture from marriage to mortgages, and they certainly apply to Brexit. Hands up. I voted to stay, and would do so again tomorrow, but you can't stop this glacier, so the best thing to do is climb it. And to climb it you need to do the maths.

Ed Hillary, he of Everest fame, said that nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. You claim the science to raise the money, but you swing through, say, the Lhotse wall 'for the hell of it.' Some Brexiteers seem to be of the Hillary variety, and approach the impending divorce with our mainland neighbours with a whoop, a holler and a cheery wave. But the rest of us want and need the scientific benefits to be real. The EU has been a really powerful promoter of big science initiatives, and, as importantly, of knowledge clusters, and both of these will be vital to a prosperous UK. That's why we must loudly applaud the UK government when it invests heavily in complex blue sky research, such as the recent announcement of £229 million going into Manchester's Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, and Harwell's Rosalind Franklin Institute. And its why business must loudly bellow for more and increased funding.

The UK is one of the most open research environments in the world, and attracts funding in from firms across the globe. But as the National Centre for University and Business Growing Value projects demonstrate time and again, this funding only flows because of the excellence of UK universities. The money is globally mobile, and will go where the best is to be found.

Climbing Brexit mountain needs the right gear, knowledge, advice and inspiration to go with courage and chutzpah. And, of course, it needs the right team. One of best mountaineering axioms is: success is not measured by how high you climb, but by the number of people you brought with you. Without people, science is just numbers and shiny machines. And if the UK is to be a roaring success, it must attract global scientific talent to teach and research in our universities, and to study here.

Clearly, no negotiator really wants to show their hand. It would be like playing poker with a mirror beneath a glass table. However, the government can send signals that we will be as open to brilliant European academics and talented students in the future as we are today. Universities UK calls for simpler visa regimes for international staff and students to operate alongside strong collaborative research programmes and a re-supply of any funding shortfall in research between what we spend (E5.5m) and what we pull in because of our talented research base (E8.8m). The government is sending all the right signals of intent about ensuring that Brexit will not undermine the research base, but businesses and universities must continue to send the strongest of signals to government about the consequences of any drop in funding.

Jim Whittaker was the first American to top Everest, but he's clear about who got him there: '(It) was a team thing. I was lucky enough to do the "slam dunk," but there were 19 Americans, plus all the Sherpas, who busted their butts to get somebody to Earth's highest point. If you're going to have a successful expedition, the team has to get at least one person up there.'

Brexit is a team thing. And the team needs the science. And the science needs the money.