After a bitter and hard fought campaign, the UK voted in a June referendum to decide whether it would remain part of the European Union (EU). Nearly 52% of voters chose to leave the EU, prompting the start of a process that would lead to a British exit – known as Brexit – from the political and economic community of which it had been part in some form since the 1970s.
The impact of the decision is far from clear as the process of negotiation with EU countries will be long and complex, but there is one constituency in which the ramifications are expected to be adverse and severe – the scientific research community. The EU has come to play a key role in funding research projects involving British scientists and universities.
In the run up to the referendum, the scientific journal Nature found in a poll that 83% of UK researchers favoured Remain, while only 12% supported Leave. The same poll found that researchers in the EU supported Britain’s continued membership by a margin of 77-17.
Among the notable campaigners for Remain was Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Francis Crick Institute, who called the referendum result “a poor outcome for British science” and lamented that British scientists face a hard task if they are to overcome the country’s perceived isolationism.
One key issue is funding. The House of Lords science committee noted that the UK contributed almost £4.3bn for EU research projects between 2007 and 2013, but received nearly £7bn back over the same period. That works out as a net gain of more than £300m in research funds each year. Since 2014, almost €1.4bn has been allocated to the UK. From 2007, Britain has won almost 1,400 of more than 5,000 grants from the European Research Council. The concern is that this funding will disappear and that the UK government will be unable to make up the shortfall.
“So the referendum outcome is deeply depressing – a view shared across mainland Europe. Support for the EU was strong, especially among the young, the universities, the technical community, and a majority of our business and professional leaders,” notes cosmologist and astrophysicist Professor Lord Martin Rees, Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, and Astronomer Royal (pictured, right).
“Despite all that, we’re landed with a frightening scenario,” he adds. “The UK will exit the EU; Scotland might then, with justification, seek independence – breaking up the union with England and Wales that has prevailed for more than 300 years. Our government will be trying, of course, to negotiate new ‘customised’ links with the EU. But they’re kidding themselves if they think these can be as benign as the EU’s long-standing agreements with, for instance, Norway. You get a far better deal in a civil partnership than after an acrimonious divorce.”
Firm Borders Will Limit Collaboration
A key issue in the pre-referendum debate – perhaps the most polarizing one for the UK electorate – was immigration. The free movement of labor between EU member states is seen by some as a contributory factor in rising levels of immigration into the UK, so a key point in the Leave campaign was the supposed reclaiming of control over the country’s borders and the ability to limit the number of people coming to live and work in Britain.
The majority of the scientific community, however, sees putting in place restrictions on movement as having a detrimental effect on cross-border collaboration. Science needs scientists and Brexit will most likely inhibit the movement of specialists. As Nurse stated after the vote, “science thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence” so the aftermath has left a bitter taste in the mouths of prominent researchers.
“You will find no one serious among scientists who put the pro-Brexit case. Personally. I am deeply upset by the vote and its implications. The immediate events included a rise in xenophobia, which is unacceptable. I hear a story every day from a colleague of open racism. My continental colleagues are as shocked as I am,” says Professor Alison Smith from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge (pictured, right).
Among other research initiatives, Smith leads a project to harness the power of algae to develop new products, such as medicines and expensive chemical ingredients, more efficiently. Her chance to become co-ordinator of a multimillion-euro research collaboration has been impacted by the Leave vote.
“My projects are still running, but the next stage of long-term research projects face problems. They are at risk because having a UK-based partner when the country’s position is unclear might jeopardize success rates. I agreed with a French colleague that I could not be the co-ordinator of a large research network after the referendum. UK researchers are still involved, but we may not be able to have influential roles,” she adds.
Since the referendum, the UK government has pledged to continue supporting science with funding and resources. So far, however, there is no clear plan or specific pledge of money, just a suggestion of increased government spending and a hope that closer ties with non-EU countries will bridge the gap.
“Opportunities may arise outside the EU, but they will not be as good as the guaranteed opportunity we had within the EU. Maybe a cost/benefit analysis on having a knowledge-based economy would show the need to invest in research. Spending on science is already a tiny amount of UK GDP but a great deal comes out in terms of innovation and support for small and medium-sized enterprises. Science is one of the things the UK does well but I think people in government have no idea about it at all,” says Smith.
For now, the UK remains part of the EU and the process of Brexit is yet to formally start. The vast majority of British scientists are hoping that once it does, the UK’s scientific potential will be a priority for politicians.