A month ago I felt full of hope. We were applying for €10 million of funding from the European Commission’s LIFE programme – a funding pot set up to protect the European environment and tackle climate change through EU policy and legislation.
The money was for an ambitious 10 year project to restore at least a million hectares of peatland right here in the UK.
Peatlands are this country’s biggest source of carbon and their restoration is a vital part of our efforts to tackle climate change, water management and biodiversity conservation.
Finding new ways to fund research
The British government has already invested millions of pounds in generating evidence to underpin a draft strategy for restoring the UK’s peatlands and this grant would have been enough to see it implemented on the ground.
For me, it was also personal - the culmination of 12 years work - and I know others in the project team had invested similar time and effort to get to this stage.
But a month is a long time in politics and the probability of us continuing to get access to funds like LIFE now - post-Brexit - is low. Why would the EU continue to give up funds designed to implement EU environmental legislation to a country that is withdrawing from the EU, and wants to reduce regulation?
The UK government has funded research that has provided an incredibly strong evidence base for environmental protections. But all the progress we have made may be under threat if a post-Brexit government moves in the opposite direction to European conservation legislation.
Instead of achieving our goal of restoring a million hectares of peatlands by 2020, we may actually end up taking a step back in conservation terms which is why we urgently need to find new ways of funding the application of research on the ground.
Science has no boundaries
There is no doubt Brexit has put UK researchers in a very difficult position. But the world is bigger than politics.
Global issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, diminishing water resources – even peatlands –have no boundaries. And if we want to solve society’s greatest challenges then we shouldn’t create boundaries in the scientific community either.
I feel disappointed and frustrated about the situation we now find ourselves in. I have always been proud that Britain leads the world in impactful research that makes a difference. My European colleagues are asking my “why” and I cannot give any logical reason for what we have done.
But there is too much to do and too much worth fighting for to give up and I still hold out hope that we can find a way to continue engaging in EU projects such as Horizon 2020 and that we fund the implementation of evidence-based environmental policy.
If we can do that, then perhaps science might become one of the few ways we can cross the boundaries made by Brexit and continue working together towards a better European environment.
Professor Mark Reed is the N8 Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation at Newcastle University, funded through the Agri-Food Resilience Programme, and a Professor in the Institute for Agri-Food Research & Innovation and Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University
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