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Awkward truths about Boris Johnson’s praise for UK science and tech – New Scientist


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Boris Johnson’s first speech as prime minister mentioned some of the scientific and technological advances that he sees as unique to Britain, including radical new gene therapy treatments for blindness through to satellites orbiting in space. But is Britain really “leading the world” in these areas, and how will they be affected by Brexit?

“Using gene therapy for the first time to treat the most common form of blindness.”

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This is a reference to a groundbreaking gene therapy trial at Moorfields Eye Hospital which has given hope to those with choroideremia, a degenerative genetic disease which causes blindness. People with the condition have a mutation in a gene called CHM – or are missing the gene altogether. After modifying a virus to deliver new DNA to the back of the retina, the cells adopt the material and are permanently changed. Everyone on the trial maintained or improved their vision for up to five years after the operation.

The project’s leader, Robert MacLaren, battled for 20 years to get the funding for his research. Much of MacLaren’s work has taken place at Moorfields Eye Hospital, which has received more than €16 million in grants and funding from the European Union to research medical treatments for the retina. In a freedom of information request by campaign group Best for Britain, it identified a “possible negative impact to our workforce” as one of the Brexit risks to its operations. Non-UK EU nationals make up 20 per cent of the entire staff at Moorfields.

“Leading the world in battery technology

In 1980 John Goodenough discovered lithium cobalt oxide at Oxford University and invented the technology necessary for lithium-ion batteries. Unfortunately for the UK economy, it was Sony which commercialised the technology and the UK saw very little direct commercial benefit. This trend continues to be true of the impending shift to all-electric vehicles. The Telegraph, for which Boris Johnson is a columnist, said in May, “the UK is still very much in the slow lane in the race for next generation automotive technology.”

Since 2011 the government has invested significant amounts in grants to subsidise plug-in cars, and in 2017 it announced spending of £246 million on an Industrial Strategy Challenge for battery research, to support academic studies and to create the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry which will provide testing facilities. It has also spent £400 million on electric car charging infrastructure.

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This investment is necessary to encourage investment in electric cars, which is needed if the government is to meet its pledge to ban internal combustion engine cars by 2040 and match its net zero CO2 emissions target by 2050. However, UK investment is dwarfed by state and private investment in battery technology projects elsewhere in the US, Europe and China. The French government, for instance, has pledged €2.5 billion over 10 years. Investors have also poured more than $19 billion into Tesla, which has been supported by huge tax credits and hundreds of millions in taxpayer-funded subsidies for its cars. It is constructing a $4 billion “gigafactory” with Panasonic to manufacture batteries on a new and unprecedented scale, and China has similarly ambitious plans to maintain its 60 per cent share of global lithium-ion battery production. Volkwagen is spending €20 billion on batteries for its all-electric cars, and that money is being spent with companies based in China and South Korea.

The UK has to make do with smaller scale projects like Nissan’s packing of Japanese cells for its all-electric Leaf, Jaguar Land Rover’s £1 billion investment to produce hybrid and electric drivetrains in the UK and Aston Martin’s plans to produce its batteries for high end luxury cars.

One of the biggest factors limiting the UK’s progress with battery technology and adoption of electric cars is uncertainty over Brexit. External investment into the UK automotive sector, which includes petrol, diesel and electric technology, has dropped 80 per cent since the referendum result in 2016. As for John Goodenough, he moved to Austin, Texas in 1992, where he is working on an idea for a “super-battery”.

“..[liberate] anti-genetic modification rules…”

This refers to the EU’s strict rules requiring stringent checks on “new” food before they are introduced into the European Union. Under EU law, the UK has to apply for approval to trial or market a new genetically modified food, and approval is only granted if the EU is happy that the food is safe. In practice, this has limited the roll-out of widespread use of GM crops in Europe. These restrictions are not present in the US, where 90 per cent of soybeans, cotton and corn is genetically engineered.

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However, even if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, none of this will change – at least in the short term. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 applies the same rules that are present in the EU to UK law and, unless this act is repealed, the government says the UK would have to make regulatory decisions on marketing GMOs within those bounds. The same regulations would continue to apply “as UK law after we have left the EU.” If Boris wants to change just this aspect of the deal, he will have to pass a new bill in the UK, which means convincing UK lawmakers to abandon EU regulations. Boris Johnson’s government currently has a working majority of two.

“…let’s develop the blight resistant crops that will feed the world…”

In 2014, a trial in the UK successfully cultivated genetically modified potatoes which are resistant to the blight which caused the Great Irish Famine. The EU did not prevent the UK from developing blight resistant crops, in fact it approved the first trial and a subsequent one that is taking place now at Norwich Research Park by the Sainsbury Laboratory. Under the current rules, the UK would have to apply to the EU if it wanted to bring GM potatoes to market, but there is nothing stopping the researchers from licensing the technology to the US. The Sainsbury Laboratory has already done just that, working with Simplot in the US to create a line of late blight resistant potatoes that it sells under the brand name “Innate” potatoes.

Of course, Boris Johnson could decide to repeal the Withdrawal Act and change the law on marketing and selling GM food. If UK farmers could plant blight-resistant potatoes it might save about £60 million a year which they currently spend on pesticides. Some would say that is small fry compared to the cost of breaking the European Union precedent.

“Let’s get going now on our own positioning, navigation, and timing satellites and Earth observation systems. UK assets, orbiting space with all the long term strategic and commercial benefits for this country.”

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UK suppliers have already been excluded from military aspects of the €10 billion Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System, a rival to the US Global Positioning System designed to provide positioning and navigation services to the military, commercial organisation and individuals with mobile phones. The UK has contributed £1 billion towards the project, and it could ask for a rebate as part of the negotiations over Brexit. Suppliers to the project have already started moving their work to the European continent so they can continue working on the contract, taking expertise out of the country.

The UK aims to own 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030, and it will be setting up a National Space Council with £20 million of funding, including a launch site for small satellites. Theresa May announced in 2018 that the UK would build its own navigation system, which is estimated to cost between £3-5 billion. Boris Johnson clearly would like to continue with this idea.

An extract from Boris Johnson’s first speech as prime minister where he mentions science and technology 

“We know the enormous strength of this economy, in life sciences, in tech, in academia, music, the arts, culture, financial services. It is here, in Britain that we are using gene therapy for the first time to treat the most common form of blindness. Here in Britain we are leading the world in battery technology that will help cut CO2, and tackle climate change, and produce green jobs for the next generation.”

“And as we prepare for a post-Brexit future, it is time we look not at the risks, but at the opportunities that are upon us, so let us begin work now, to create free ports that will drive jobs and create thousands of high skilled jobs in left behind areas; let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bio science sector, from anti-genetic modification rules, and let’s develop the blight resistant crops that will feed the world. Let’s get going now on our own positioning, navigation, and timing satellites and Earth observation systems. UK assets, orbiting space with all the long term strategic and commercial benefits for this country.”

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