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European science will thrive after Brexit

Thursday, 8 March, 2018 - 14:40

Amid concerns that Brexit could severely diminish the European Union’s scientific standing, Europe’s leading scientists are calling for the emergence of a European Research Area (ERA) once Brexit is finalised. The proposed ERA would expand scientific collaboration across the EU and its partner countries, including Switzerland, Norway, and eventually the UK. The proposal is based on consultations with 200 scientists and policymakers, and aims to build a stronger future for scientific endeavours at a time when the EU’s scientific institutions have come under fire amidst a clash with the French International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the agency’s disputed  classification of the herbicide glyphosate.

This proposal arrives at a time when the expected loss of British contributions to European research funds raises fears that Europe’s scientific capacity as a whole may end up suffering. The Republic of Ireland’s chief economic adviser, Mark Ferguson, suggests that the reduced funding might ultimately weaken the voice of European science in EU budget negotiations. This view is shared by the president of the European University Association, Rolf Tarrach, who already expects a reduced research budget in the next Framework Programme following the UK’s exit.

These fears come in addition to ongoing criticism of the EU’s key scientific regulatory bodies – notably the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) – both of which have been subject to intense criticism in recent years. Most recently, the Natural Resource Defence Council (NRDC) asserted that EFSA compromised its scientific integrity by refusing to toe the line of an IARC report that concluded glyphosate – the world’s most widely used herbicide – is linked to cancer. Following its own extensive assessment, EFSA reached an entirely different conclusion, prompting the NRDC to accuse the Authority of “breaking with [the] long-standing practice of aligning with the IARC cancer hazard assessments”.

Yet EFSA – it seems – was ultimately correct. The NRDC overlooked a critical element, the fact that IARC has consistently failed the scientific community on every count of scientific integrity: transparency, reproducibility, and overall “excellence” is nowhere to be found in the agency’s glyphosate ruling. Instead, IARC’s glyphosate study was heavily manipulated, as important conclusions that found no link between the chemical and cancer in laboratory animals were removed. Furthermore, an entirely new statistical analysis was inserted, reversing the original finding of one study used in IARC’s assessment.

IARC has thus been left as the sole critic of the herbicide not only in Europe, but in the international scientific community more broadly. Most recently, in December, the US Environmental Protection Agency reaffirmed its findings that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic, a finding that was in line with comparable evaluations by regulators in Canada, Japan, and New Zealand. IARC’s isolation on this matter is likely to weigh heavily in a legal case that is currently taking place in US district court, where a judge is currently evaluating claims of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity. The burden of proof in this case rests with the plaintiffs, who must prove – in contrast with the findings by the EPA, EFSA, ECHA et al. – that the herbicide causes cancer.

Though the evaluations by EFSA and ECHA may have little bearing in US-based policy, there is ample reason to lend trust to their findings. After all, the EU enforces one of the most rigorous and trusted sets of standards for research in their institutions to ensure the quality and integrity of their output. These provide effective benchmarks that act as checks and balances against abuse or shoddy work. Throughout the Union, researchers must conform to clearly articulated responsibilities and the principles that underpin them.

Such controls are clearly missing at IARC, whose evaluations of not just glyphosate but many other substances have also been characterized by a lack of scientific rigor. In February, for instance, Reuters revealed IARC also made grave errors in reviewing benzene, a fact it was made aware of as far back as 2015. Similar to its botched evaluation of glyphosate, IARC disregarded important information that, in this case, caused the agency to understate benzene’s carcinogenicity. Rather than learning from their mistakes and changing their ways, however, IARC scientists have refused to make amends, or even acknowledge that there is a problem.

Yet learning from past mistakes and improving approaches to research is a fundamental part of science and is especially critical where science intersects with policy, whether it be in the fields of consumer protection, product safety, or environmental protection. The EU’s bodies go through external evaluations in order to spot such issues and maximize their effectiveness as policy advisors. As a result, their excellence is well documented in these fields, as scientific regulatory bodies like EFSA and ECHA enjoy some of the best reputations in their class. For example, an evaluation by Ernst & Young commended EFSA for its “high quality, accessibility and reliability of outputs”, allowing the Authority to “respond adequately to requests for advice”. Similar accolades have been given to a host of other European regulatory bodies.

Given its solid basis of excellence, it is unlikely that Brexit will cause a radical overturn in this regard. On the contrary – it even stands to reason that Brexit will unleash processes that present new opportunities to increase the number of incoming academics, boosting science across the EU. Upon the UK’s departure, expertise and funding will simply be redistributed to the remaining member countries, who are more than capable of absorbing the missing British pillar. According to a new report by Denmark’s Aarhus University, German institutions, the top research collaborator in the majority of European countries, look set to cement their position following Brexit.

Far from damaging the EU’s scientific standing, then, the bloc is set to condense its scientific exchange and knowledge base post-Brexit. The intensified cross-institutional influx of highly trained academic personnel across the continent can contribute to new processes fostering scientific excellence—not only in universities, but in the scientific agencies of the EU as well. Such a bottom-up conveyor belt of talent is already in existence but could see an important boost in the near future. The fact that the IARC’s conclusions were debunked by the EU’s own research bodies speaks to their superior scientific quality. With the establishment of the ERA, their reputation for integrity and excellence has nowhere to go but up.


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