Difficult to ignore what’s happening now in the UK, and the post-Brexit mayhem. While I don’t do politics on this blog for a precise choice (i.e., I write enough about it in other venues), there are some issues that affect many of the subjects I cover here – namely, space research and programmes. What I’ll do today is to point out some topics that I am going to develop in future posts, related to the way things are likely going to change, for the British S&T (science and technology) first of all, but also more in general, for what concerns science and research related to space.
UE-funded research programmes. UK scientists (most of them) wanted in. According to Nature, the charged question of whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union — to be put to a national referendum on 23 June — splits the general population almost evenly. But most scientists want the country to stay in, suggests a Nature poll of nearly 2,000 researchers living in the EU, both inside and outside the United Kingdom.” How many of them voted to stay? 83% of UK researchers, say the poll. For a good reason: “from 2007 to 2013, the UK paid €5.4 billion ($6 billion) to fund EU science and received €8.8 billion in research funding. No other EU member state receives more grants from the European Research Council.” (Physics Today, 24 June 2016).
Has the UK just waved them goodbye? Not necessarily, and not immediately. Probably Horizon 2020 won’t be hugely affected (for timescale reason), but what comes after that will depend on the terms of the exit, and the kind of association deal the two parts will agree (Norway-like? Swiss-like? None at all? Just too early to say).
European Space Cooperation, mainly ESA-led research. This is probably the area that will be less concerned, since ESA is not just an EU venture and, while more than half of its budget (60%) comes from the EU, its leadership has always shown substantial autonomy (even excessive, if you ask Bruxelles). After all, ESA already includes two full members — Norway and Switzerland — that have access to the EU’s single market without being part of the EU itself, with Canada as an ESA associate member.
Joint European Torus, the European experimental programme for fusion reactors. This is different, and negative effects will probably be huge. The torus is located at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the UK, but largely funded by the European Union, and at the very least the UK will have to pay for accessing the programme once it leaves the EU.
Galileo Navigation System, satellites included. The UK as a key role here, with a company, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), which prime contractor for Galileo’s payload electronics.This is going to be a real headache, since the EU owns the programme and its timing and navigation network. For more about this complicated area, see this.
But a Brexit is a bad news for everyone, and not just the UK. “Science thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimises barriers and are open to free exchange and collaboration.”(Nobel Prize Paul Nurse, The Guardian, 24 June 2016). What worse in all this story is that the climate of cooperation and joint-research has made Europe a world-class centre of physical and life sciences is probably a thing of the past. What lies ahead, nobody knows.