What does Brexit mean for the future of scientific research in the UK?

Irteza Ishraq looks at the impact Brexit could have on researchers in the UK.

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

Scientific research is more reliant on international collaboration than ever before. Combining intellectual and physical resources around the world has proven to be central in advancing modern science with over half of all papers published in the UK having an international co-author (60% of which, are with our EU partners). Similarly, international collaboration has led to projects such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the European Space Agency (ESA) that would otherwise have been simply impossible.  But, with Brexit on the horizon, what does the future hold for both current and prospective UK researchers?

Prior to the referendum, the Royal Society identified three major topics of consideration regarding the role of the EU in research in the UK: funding, mobility, and regulations.

Firstly, and most obviously, is the importance of EU funding. In 2014, the EU greatly increased its funding for research through the introduction of a programme called Horizon 2020. The programme plans to provide a total of €74.8bn for research, mostly across Europe, between 2014 and 2020. To date, the UK is the second largest benefactor, second only to Germany. Overall, 11% of all research funding received by UK universities originate from EU sources, and whilst it is guaranteed that this financing will continue until the UK formally leaves the EU, which could be as late as March 2019, the government has been keen to state that a post-Brexit UK will still aim to be at the forefront of research.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, clarified in a press release that “Horizon research funding granted before we leave the EU will be guaranteed by the Treasury after we leave.” This is a vow complimented by a £4.7bn increase in the Autumn Statement towards research and development over the next four years.

Some, however, are sceptical about the government’s response to Brexit. The campaign group Scientists for EU described the Autumn Statement “as a confirmation of the bare essentials, but nothing more”, expressing concerns that the government are still yet “to confirm that, should we leave the EU science programme, the same amounts or more will be available directly from HM Treasury”.

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Troubling reports regarding the relationship between scientists from the UK and the EU have also arisen. A report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has noted numerous cases of collaborators in multi-national projects pressuring UK researchers to withdraw from projects. Scientists for EU have reported 40 such examples of so-called “Horizon 2020 disruptions” whereby partner pressure has resulted in resignations in leading roles of research projects.

Clearly, clarity regarding the relationship between the EU and a post-Brexit UK needs to be established. The uncertain terms of Brexit have cast a shadow on the future of EU citizens in the UK, who also form 16% of all academic staff in UK universities. Despite the British Government confirming that EU students are guaranteed no changes in their tuition fees for the duration of their studies (provided they are starting before the 2017/18 academic year), there are visible signs of discomfort; UCAS have reported a 7% decline in EU applicants in 2017.

Nevertheless, Brexit could potentially open the door for opportunities outside of Europe. A study commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank predicts that Brexit will result in an extra £187m per year in tuition fees for UK universities, as the fall in EU students are partly compensated by the introduction of non-EU students. Regarding research opportunities, the USA is currently the UK’s single most frequent collaborator, and talks are underway to strengthen the relationship between the two countries’ research institutions. Speaking to the BBC about the relationship of the UK and USA, President of the Royal Society, Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, noted that “cooperation between our two countries would undoubtedly be a good thing… but it should be regarded as an addition to, rather than a substitute for, cooperation with our European colleagues”.

The effects of Brexit on UK research will be felt for years to come. Dependent on the agreements made between the UK, the EU, and the rest of the world, Brexit may eventually serve to broaden the prospects of UK researchers outside of Europe. The initial struggle however, seems to lie in re-establishing both the conveniences of staying in the EU and the opportunities that it currently offers.