UK scientists ‘are going to be all right,’ after Brexit, science minister promises

Science minister Sam Gyimah hopes the United Kingdom can still have a say in EU funding programs such as Horizon Europe, which will begin in 2021.

Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament (CC BY 3.0)

In January, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Sam Gyimah as science and universities minister as a part of a broader cabinet reshuffle. Gyimah, a Conservative member of parliament representing East Surrey, replaced Jo Johnson, who had been science minister for almost 3 years. Last month, Gyimah came to the United States on a whistlestop tour. He visited pharmaceutical companies in Boston and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In Washington, D.C., he met with National Space Council head Scott Pace to talk about opportunities for collaboration in commercial space. During his visit, Gyimah spoke with Science about the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, a topic that is causing a great deal of anxiety among U.K. scientists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You were a banker for Goldman Sachs after you studied philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. What interest do you have in science?

A: Everyone who’s rational should have an interest in science. The future of our planet depends on our understanding of science. … It’s something I value immensely.

Q: You voted “Remain” in the referendum over Brexit. But now you are in a position of protecting U.K. science during the separation process. How difficult is that?

A: I voted to remain because I thought it was costly and complicated to leave the EU, and that is clearly still the case. But there are opportunities and challenges.

Q: Several weeks ago, at the Universities U.K. conference, you told universities that this is not the time to “shrink back and sulk” about Brexit, that universities need to “engage and lead in these debates.” What would you like them to do at this late stage?

A: Universities have a big role to play … making it very clear to their counterparts, their networks, that the U.K. is not walking away from the world. We still value multilateral cooperation, we still see the EU as a significant partner.

Q: Your government wants to be an associated member of the European Union’s premier research funding programs, Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, like Norway or Switzerland, but with some influence over research priorities for the programs.

A: Our ask: We will make a financial contribution and it will be significant. It will be larger than all the other associated members combined. … In return for that, we ask for a number of things: that the focus of the programs is based on scientific excellence. … If the framework programs become about building capacity and capability in other EU countries, then the focus goes away from excellence. … We would [also] want our scientists to be involved in the decisions of some of the programs, the thinking behind some of the programs.

Q: Your government established the United Kingdom Research and Innovation’s (UKRI’s) Rutherford Fund to help attract young researchers from outside the United Kingdom. But there is evidence—declines in graduate school applications for example—that non-U.K. scientists are seeing the United Kingdom as a less appealing destination. What else can you do to staunch brain drain?

A: I understand that mobility of scientists is essential to our success. … We’ve also subsequent to the Rutherford Fund launched a £1 billion “future leaders” program under UKRI, which is open to the brightest, the best, and the talented from all around the world. And we’re looking at our visa regimes. The UKRI visa program, it’s going to make it easier for researchers to come to the U.K. and do their work.

Q: You have been upset over the European Union’s stance that the United Kingdom will be shut out of future contracts for Galileo, the European Union’s GPS system, even after pouring in more than £1 billion, and that you might not have access to its secure, military-grade signal elements. What leverage do you have to remain in the program?

A: The Galileo thing is incredibly frustrating. … It doesn’t look like the EU is going to change its mind based on where we are in negotiations. So we will do what any sovereign nation would do which has military interests to bear in mind and which needs access to this technology—which is to look to produce our own version of it.

Q: That’s a colossal undertaking that takes billions of pounds and a decade of time. How credible could a U.K. effort be?

A: After building it we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Companies have learned how to do things faster. It’ll probably be less complicated than one that’s built to the spec of 28 different countries. What we want to be post-Brexit is nimble, agile—and this is one area where we can prove that. The government has already committed £92 million to doing feasibility work around our own Galileo.

Q: During recent Brexit negotiations in Austria, European leaders made it clear that withdrawal would not be easy. The European Council president said that May’s current plan for a new relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom “will not work.” And French President Emmanuel Macron had a harsh message for Brexiteers. He said, “Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.” What do you say in response to that, to the scientists you are supposed to be advocating for? Are they going to be all right?

A: They’re going to be all right, and we’re going to do everything to make sure that post-Brexit, the U.K. is a go-to place for science and innovation. We’re proving that by increasing investment in science to record levels. … It’s neither in our interest nor the EU’s for there not to be a deal. I think cool heads will prevail.

*Update, 2 October, 5:20 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional material from the interview.

Leave a Reply