Britain-EU divorce drives a creative spark

As they split, the U.K. and European Union are each striving to boost the talents of their people in science and technology. In that venture they are united in seeing the potential for creativity.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to an employee at a Daimler battery factory in Kamenz, Germany.

After nearly a half-century of close ties to the Continent, Britain leaves the European Union on Friday night. This historic divorce has forced leaders on both sides to focus on how to reduce the potential upheaval, especially to their economies. Not surprisingly, each is now proposing ways to better tap the creative talents of their people. The divorce has actually spurred a competition to boost ingenuity in scientific research and, ultimately, economic productivity.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled a plan to turn the United Kingdom into “a global science superpower,” free of the EU regulations that he claims have stifled investment in risky technologies. He is offering an unlimited number of visas to the “world’s most talented minds” and hopes “to turn their ideas into reality.” He wants to spend nearly $400 million in mathematical sciences for “experimental and imaginative” research.

His goal is to put innovation at the heart of Britain’s economic regeneration, relying first on “unlocking the potential” of its people to create new technologies. To do that, he plans to double public spending on research and development over five years.

At the same, the EU expects to unveil a new “industrial strategy” by March, in part to recover from Brexit but also to better compete with tech giants from the United States and China. To stir creative research, the plan focuses on a goal of making Europe carbon neutral by 2050.

European companies already hold 40% of the world’s renewable-technology patents. The EU expects to invest in several other technologies, such as supercomputers and hydrogen energy, in order to produce “disruptive research and breakthrough innovations,” says the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

“Europe has all the scientists and all the industrial capabilities it needs to be competitive in these areas,” she says. “Let’s not talk ourselves down. Innovation needs brains. But it also needs diversity. It needs space to think.”

Britain and the EU differ in their approaches to nurturing new technologies. Yet they are hardly divorced in one respect: They both see an unlimited resource in scientific imagination. They want to push beyond material constraints and the boundaries of human thought. Under their plans, ideas are seen as universally available. At the level of seeking progress for their people, their parting could bring them together.

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