Are science and medicine threatened by borders?

Saturday 28 October, 16:0017:15, Cinema 3Intellectual life


Concerns about support for science as an international collaboration have grown in the past year. Many scientists expressed concern before the EU referendum vote about the future of research funding and the ease of movement for researchers and students alike. The March for Science embodied the concerns of many, particularly after the election of Donald Trump as US president, that scientific findings would be ignored by the new administration and that a crackdown on immigration would make cooperation more difficult.

Scientists and scholars have travelled, collaborated and competed across national borders since antiquity. In the thirteenth century, for example, Roger Bacon, a pioneer of empirical science, left England to spend a decade teaching in France. Politics has always provided a context for scientists’ travels and funding, from the first Bengali Hindus who travelled to London to study medicine in 1845 (their studies were funded by the East India Company), to the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan arriving in Cambridge to study on the eve of the First World War, to the US military poaching Germany’s rocket scientists at the end of the Second World War.

The USA used its German rocket scientists to build its space programme, during which time so many British scientists travelled to the USA to work that in 1963, the term ‘brain drain’ was coined to describe this exodus. In 2017, commentators in the UK and the USA are again fearful of a brain drain – only this time, the causes are Brexit and the Trump presidency.

Brexit also threatens to disrupt funding arrangements such as the EU’s Framework Programmes (of which the UK has been a prominent beneficiary), while the disputed Brexit ‘divorce bill’ involves UK financial commitments to research projects already underway. But although the UK has been successful in attracting EU funding, this has masked a paucity of investment in R&D. By contrast, China – one of several non-EU countries with which the UK now collaborates on science via the Newton Fund – is forecast to overtake the USA as the world’s largest national funder of R&D within the next five years.

Regulation of science and medicine also has an international dimension, with one commentator going so far as to claim that regulatory changes after Brexit could lead to a repeat of the thalidomide disaster of the Fifties and Sixties. China’s groundbreaking work in human embryo research in recent years has led some to characterise the country as a ‘Wild East’, but others have argued that this characterisation is racist, and that China is in fact innovating responsibly while usefully spurring other countries to reconsider their regulations and up their game.

How can we nurture international collaboration in a post-Brexit world? Are there countries with whom we should be wary of sharing scientific research or technological advances? Whose responsibility is it to fund scientific research anyway – national governments, supranational institutions such as the EU or private enterprise? How can science and medicine best be defended and pursued, in an uncertain world of shifting – and possibly closed – borders?