Post-Brexit science to be discussed at parliamentary summit

I see that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has entered 2018 with a call for a summit focused on science in the UK post-Brexit. Whatever their personal views of Brexit, including whether EU withdrawal will actually happen, the committee members are doing their job, and one hopes that the summit comes up with some constructive ideas and realistic proposals.

As for the practicalities of the summit planned for February, the committee is calling for written submissions by 5 February, with a suggested emphasis on the much criticised government white paper “Collaboration on science and innovation”. It also plans to address issues identified in previous committee reports, “pros, cons and remaining uncertainties” following the recent UK/EU agreement for an “Orderly UK withdrawal”, the consequences of short-term uncertainty, future participation in Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes, and other international cooperation agreements such as those with China and the US.

If the committee members led by Liberal MP Norman Lamb can move beyond the largely vacuous rhetoric of the Brexit debate thus far, the summit may be worthwhile. Still, the realist in me doesn’t hold out much hope. The fundamental problem is the large number of undefined variables, few of which will be nailed down before a final withdrawal agreement is negotiated (if it ever is).

A more overtly political problem, with no regard for evidence-based policymaking, is that substantive talk by MPs of realistic future cooperation models – e.g., associated membership of EU research collaborations, with no seat at the decision-making table, and few if any options for leadership of specific research projects – could be seen as ‘talking Britain down’. But responsible planning for post-Brexit science must tackle such issues head on.