Brexit could signal the end of Britain’s science and tech ambitions  

Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE, CEO of M Squared, discusses the impact of Brexit’s Galileo negotiations on Britain’s science and technology sectors.

From the discovery of the Higgs boson, to mapping the human genome –leaps forward in scientific progress can be attributed to the coming together of great minds from across the globe. 

Collaborative projects on an international scale are fundamental to scientific discovery and tackling the most prominent challenges of our time.

Alone, no nation has the resources, nor brain-power, to address perils such as – halting climate change and curing cancer, for example. These issues are on a scale that demands a multinational approach. Acting alone threatens to halt the evolution of scientific advancement.

The danger of going it alone

Take the Galileo project as an example. The European Space Agency’s initiative is Europe’s answer to satellite navigation and signals a departure away from a reliance on the US for GPS, telecoms and military navigation.

Beginning in 2003, the first satellites as part of the project were launched in 2011. So far, Britain has been instrumental and has played a central role throughout – contributing both £1.2bn and extensive technological expertise. 

However, Brexit negotiations have thus far failed to give clarity on whether the UK can be involved in the project once Britain leaves the EU – prompting Chancellor Philip Hammond, to announce that the UK would go it alone, and develop sat-nav systems of its own, if the EU excludes Britain.

Whilst Britain has requested to continue to remain part of the Galileo project, questions have been raised by EU members as to how much access Britain will have, if any.

Departing from the Galileo project and committing to disparate projects could be symptomatic of a more harmful, isolationist mind-set. Without caution, this may sweep through those at the helm of the UK’s industrial strategy and leading figures in the private sector following Brexit.

Going it alone would leave Britain over-exposed financially and leave the UK on the outside of the European scientific community.

Isolation from the global collective of scientific researchers that are commercialising tech at the forefront of scientific advancement – is detrimental to both the UK’s own illustrious community and global innovation as a whole. Cooperation, not competition, is essential. We must speak the language of opportunity and embrace international collaboration.

Quantum computing

A good working example of where collaboration works on an international level is quantum computing. 

The world is running out of computational power. At the core of today’s most advanced technology is data. While we have the means to collect and store increasingly large amounts of it, we are falling behind in our ability to process data as even the most advanced supercomputers fail to keep pace. It is essential that within the next five to ten years we begin to realise the benefits of quantum computing and unlock the possibilities attached to exponential computing power on a commercially viable scale.

But quantum physics isn’t easy. If we look at progress to date, international collaboration has been paramount. Scientists from the US, EU states and the UK have pooled intellectual property, capital and knowledge transfer to spur on progress. For both state-sponsored research institutions and private sector businesses at the forefront of the quantum computing revolution, the international network of combined excellence – Nobel Prize winning scientists, universities, commercial ventures – is the beating heart of technological advancement.

Collaboration is key, historically

The past can point to the future – many of the major scientific discoveries from the last 100 years can be attributed to global partnerships. The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN, was founded in 1954 by 12 countries, and now has 22 member states. Since then, it has been the birthplace of the World Wide Web and resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson particle.

British science and technology communities rely on, and must have the ability to rely on, open access to an international network that facilitates the sharing of knowledge and research.

Science has the potential to generate great societal change, but it requires collective action. The UK must make every effort to remain a leading nation in the European and international scientific communities. Going it alone on any of these great endeavours isn’t the answer for the UK, and the Galileo project shouldn’t inadvertently set a precedent for the UK’s mindset for the coming years.