The Brexit effect: a changing landscape for science research

Written by Lizzie Harrett

It has almost been a year since the UK unexpectedly voted to leave the EU. BioTechniques catches up with what has happened with science research since.

What does Brexit spell out for the future of science research?


In the early hours of June 24th 2016, Brits were glued to their television sets or mobile devices as they watched the European Union (EU) referendum results roll in. A public vote decided whether the United Kingdom (UK) should leave (Brexit) or remain within the EU. As the night drew on, it became apparent that the UK had marginally voted to quit, triggering the Brexit proceedings.

Having been a member of the EU for over 30 years, Europe is embroidered into the fabric of almost every social, political, and economic element of the UK. From the legal system to trading agreements to immigration, much will change as a result of the Brexit vote. Due to the collaborative nature of science and international funding structures, the landscape of scientific research will also move on.

While there was much initial discussion about the impact of Brexit on scientific research following the vote, this was largely speculative. Almost one year on, with the formal proceedings triggered for EU departure, the government has begun to draw up plans and policies to ensure that the UK gets the best Brexit effect possible, including ambitions for science.

The importance of effective policy concerning science research is paramount. “I am in definite belief that if not handled correctly, the referendum result threatens the future of research in the UK,” said Graeme Reid, Chair of Science Research & Policy at University College London.

The First Hurdle

“The first hurdle to overcome was ensuring that science research would not be marginalized in any debates about Brexit, something I was seriously concerned about,” said Reid. With issues such as the effect of Brexit on trade and immigrationdominating the headlines, it is easy to see how science could end up taking a back seat.

To the relief of Reid, this doesn’t seem to be the case. “The scientific community has worked very hard to get its voice heard,” said Reid. In return, it appears that the government wants to listen. The Minister of Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, has established a high level forum where a broad range of representatives of the university, science, research, and innovation communities can discuss matters of common interest while approaching Brexit. The Prime Minister has also vocalized her commitment to “ensuring a positive outcome for UK science.”

Actions speak louder than words, and initial policy and promises laid out by the government also seem to quash some fears about side-lining science. “For me, the biggest feelings I had about Brexit were focused on insecurity,” said University of Edinburgh biosciences PhD student Marta Campillo, who is an EU national working in the UK. “It is incredibly important the grants and other sources of money that the EU now gives to the different EU research facilities will still arrive to the UK, as without this money, the number of projects will decrease, affecting jobs and research.”

EU grants have been the bread and butter for much British research. Scientists rely on these grants for approximately 16% of university science funding, and 73% of the £200 million increase in British science research grant and contract income between 2007 and 2013 came from EU sources.

However, those just starting projects will have their funding honored until 2020—after Britain leaves the EU. Moreover, last year the government also announced a huge boost for research and development, in the shape of a £4.7 billioninvestment over 4 years from 2017 to 2021, the biggest investment increase in nearly 40 years, and exceeding the amount of money coming from the EU to the UK.

“That’s not to say that it will be spent on the same things. How this money is to be spent has yet to be decided,” said Reid. “The question for the science community is how far do we want to recreate the funding that existed when we were members of the EU, and how far do we want to do something different?”

A Question of Immigration

Despite Brexit, it may be possible for Britain to continue its involvement in EU research funding strategies. That could mean UK adherence to some EU policies, including freedom of movement. Unfortunately, the current rhetoricsurrounding immigration by government ministers suggests that may be unacceptable.

Immigration issues may not only limit involvement in projects but may also deter the best international researchers from coming to the UK. While the government has hinted that highly skilled workers will be exempt from immigration restrictions, there remains concern. “The immigration messages are still echoing around some research laboratories and have caused considerable damage to the confidence of people from EU member states who have chosen to build careers, families, and lives in the UK,” said Reid. There have already been numerous anecdotal stories of European academics made to feel no longer welcome. “Nobody explains anything, so there is great fear when you talk with other EU citizens about the future,” added Campillo.

The government seems to be trying to change this message with respect to research. “I was really very pleased to see in the March budget that the chancellor announced he was setting aside a large sum of money to install a head-hunting operation for finding the best global talent,” said Reid. “However, there is a lot to do to overcome the damage. The message has to change, but that is not enough. There has been an erosion of confidence, and that has to be rebuilt. A new message on immigration has to be sold to the world.”

A Global Future

In addition to recruiting the best global talent into the UK, global collaborations also need to continue. In 1985, 85% of all research published in Great Britain was solely authored by British scientists. That figure now stands at 50%, with UK researchers increasingly cooperating in larger studies with international collaborations.

Some researchers involved in EU initiatives are concerned about how Brexit could reduce British researchers to secondary actors in projects such as Copernicus, the world’s largest program monitoring the environment. However, not all areas of science are set to be affected: “It important is to recognize just how much texture and nuance is found in the scientific relationship with Europe,” stated Reid. “There are some parts of the research community that don’t have a close relationship; there are other parts that have a critical relationship with the EU. And then there are variations between the two extremes. This all needs to be considered when looking at how best to inform policy.”

This uncertainty regarding EU projects needs to be managed. In a survey of union members, including those working in science, 86% felt dissatisfied with government preparations for Brexit, and 69% felt that uncertainty surrounding Brexit had negatively affected their organization’s ability to plan or undertake long-term projects.

Going forward, it is also important to look at collaborations outside of the EU. “I can imagine in a post-Brexit world, there will be rich collaborations with scientists in individual EU member states and other parts of the world. It’s not as if we are going to stop collaborating internationally. There are already sizeable funding streams with an international focus, and that was boosted by additional emphasis and money that was given to research by overseas development assistance,” said Reid.

A large-scale international project hosted in the UK could also send out a message about the country’s global ambitions. “Offering to host a major international facility in the UK would demonstrate that we are open for international collaboration and research,” argues Reid.

All Aboard

Before any long-term projects can even be considered, the government needs the scientific community on their side. While the Brexit result divided the UK, with 52% and 48% voting leave and remain, respectively, the scientific community had a much more homogenous consensus. According to a survey by Nature just prior to the referendum, 83% of scientists were in the “remain” camp.

“It makes it all the more challenging for the scientific community when the referendum didn’t go the way we wanted,” said Reid. “However, working out how Brexit can be turned to our advantage will be the way through this.”

So while uncertainty remains, notably around immigration, there are positive possibilities and opportunities to take advantage of. Time will only tell how Brexit will play out over the next year, 5 years, and decade, but the government appears to be putting its best foot forward with respect to science research.