U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling for research funding boosts and a speedy Brexit.

FRANK AUGSTEIN/POOL/REUTERS

Stark party differences in ‘Brexit election’ could shape future of U.K. science

"Get Brexit done." "Stop Brexit." "Give people the final say." The campaign slogans of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties, respectively, betray the biggest issue in a momentous U.K. election on 12 December. When representatives of each party took to a stage last week at the Royal Society in London, they all promised increased funding and easier immigration for scientists. But Brexit loomed over the discussion, says Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, an advocacy group in London. "There are huge implications."

For many scientists, the promised benefits would do little to lessen the pain of Brexit. At stake is the roughly £1.5 billion that U.K. researchers win each year from the European Union, more than the U.K. puts into those EU programs. Even now, the mere prospect of Brexit seems to be taking a toll on U.K. research. For example, winners of European fellowships are now less likely to come—and bring their money—to U.K. institutions than they were a few years ago.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for the election to break gridlock over Brexit. The United Kingdom's departure from the European Union, kicked off by a 2016 referendum and now set for 31 January 2020, has been put off twice already. Johnson has been unable to get Parliament to approve a divorce agreement, and crashing out of the European Union without a deal could cause a recession.

Johnson and the Conservatives want a quick approval for their plan. "I think we need to move on to bigger issues," Stephen Metcalfe, a Conservative member of Parliament (MP) and a member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, said at the Royal Society event. The opposition Labour Party says it will negotiate a better deal with the European Union and then put it to the people in another referendum. The Liberal Democrats, running third in national polls, want to cancel Brexit.

If Brexit happens, the parties all say they would try to reach a science deal with the European Union and pay to participate in its funding programs. They also want to reform immigration for scientists, both to minimize the red tape and fees that EU scientists will face after Brexit and to bring in talent from other parts of the world. Johnson wants to eliminate caps on visas for top researchers and make it easier for universities to sponsor them. At the Royal Society event, Labour and Liberal Democrats said they would make improvements as well. "It's clear the entire system needs reform because it's not working," said Chi Onwurah, a Labour MP and party spokesperson for science and innovation.

Research funding was another point of agreement. The Conservatives started to boost the budget in 2016, and in 2017 announced a 10-year goal of reaching a national R&D investment of 2.4% of gross domestic product, the average figure among economically developed countries, up from 1.7%. The other parties have pledged to maintain that momentum. "There is a startling degree of consensus across the three main parties," says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield.

A closer look suggests the parties might deploy this money differently. Johnson said last month he wants to create a British Advanced Research Projects Agency, inspired by the U.S. military agency that helped develop the internet, with a total of £800 million over 5 years to work on bold civilian ideas. But Sam Gyimah, a Liberal Democrat MP and a former science minister before he quit the Conservative Party, pointed out that researchers are already adapting to a big new funder, UK Research and Innovation. He warned about the risk of "chopping and changing" the way government distributes research funding.

Labour has a controversial idea of its own, although it didn't get much mention at the Royal Society debate. In September, the party—which favors nationalization of railways, postal service, and utilities—called for a publicly owned drug company to make generic drugs, including versions of drugs still under patent, for the National Health Service. Any profits would support public R&D. In a statement, Richard Torbett of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry in London rejected that idea. "It would send a hugely negative signal to British scientists and would discourage research."

On climate policy, all the parties vow to reduce net carbon emissions to zero and increase renewable energy, but differ on the pace. The Conservatives would aim for zero emissions in 2050, whereas the Liberal Democrats say 2045 is doable. Labour, mindful of supporters who work in oil and gas extraction and energy-intensive industries, recently stepped back from a target of 2030; its platform, released last week, focuses instead on creating jobs in renewable energy.

The election will determine how much of this is practical. Ambitious goals, such as a new funding agency or energy policy, need the approval of what has been a paralyzed Parliament. That inaction might continue if the next ruling party fails to get a significant majority. The parties have so far ruled out forming a coalition government. The end result could be more of the same: an impasse on the issue most important to the country, and to science.