What would Brexit mean for the future of the scientific community?

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After a three year long Brexit limbo, with two leaders, five rejected deals and an increasingly polarised population, Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill was passed on 20th December with a majority of 124, leaving the UK on course to leave the EU by the end of January.

The United Kingdom prides itself on the breakthrough contributions of its scientists, and up until now, our membership in the EU has been crucial for the provision of funding, our status in the wider scientific community, and our collaboration with scientists elsewhere in the EU.

UK scientists have massively benefited from increasing levels of EU resources. Almost €1.4 billion (£1.11 billion) has been allocated since 2014. For example, since 2007 Britain has won almost 1,400 of more than 5,000 grants from the European Research Council, receiving 22% of allocated funds.

However, like all areas of British society, scientific research and technology will feel the effects of Brexit. Some have even predicted crippling repurcussions to Britain’s scientific community: “All Brexit deals look like different shades of bad” for UK research, says Mike Galsworthy, director of the pro-EU campaign group Scientists for EU.

The UK and European science community is strongly pro-remain, and the Brexit referendum has already caused a long period of anger and grief. There is a climate of uncertainty among the scientific community, with no sense of whether the UK will be willing and able to maintain its global scientific leadership.

Indeed, the first figures have emerged demonstrating that Brexit uncertainty has already adversely affected UK research. Since 2015, Britain’s annual share of EU research funding has fallen by nearly a third. In fact, UK science has lost out on roughly £440 million per year in funding because of uncertainty around Brexit. The UK’s share of EU funding fell from 16% of the EU budget before the referendum in 2015, to just over 11% in 2018.

This is partly because scientists are choosing not to work in Britain: there has already been a 35% drop in those coming to carry out research in the UK via EU schemes. President of the Royal Society said that scientists do not want to “gamble their careers” by working in a nation with an uncertain future research policy and turbulent politics directly affecting science.

Despite these concerning figures, both Theresa May and Boris Johnson pledged their desire to preserve strong links with EU science programmes after Brexit via EU negotiations. In the summer of 2019, Johnson took the first steps to improve the visa scheme for science: he instructed government departments to devise a new fast-track visa system to attract leading scientists to work in the UK. These efforts were ridiculed by some researchers as insignificant in the face of a future hard Brexit.

However, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation said “rumoured proposals… would still leave us at a significant disadvantage.” Instead he recommends a deal that “supports collaborative funding bids on major projects and that means the UK welcomes researchers rather than putting up barriers.”

Yet, there is hope for what seems like an otherwise bleak future for UK science. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the Chair of The Wellcome Trust, has warned that whilst “a badly handled Brexit risks damaging British – and European – science… with the right agreement, it’s possible we could maintain and even improve scientific collaboration with our European neighbours.”

With Brexit, UK institutions and individuals might still be able to appeal for support under some schemes for EU collaboration outside the Union. Wellcome are campaigning for a Brexit settlement in which the UK keeps access to EU research funding, and if not possible, explores alternative, international funding schemes – so that scientists in the UK still have a good range of potential funding sources. Wellcome is also pushing for the development of a simple post-Brexit immigration system for skilled researchers and innovators – so that the UK maintains its place as a world leader in global science.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Whilst a survey in the journal Nature showed that most UK researchers opposed Brexit, some see a silver lining – freeing the country from constrictive EU regulations. Professor Dalgleish, an oncologist at the University of London, claimed “Several areas of research, such as GMO and stem cell research, could be expected to take a significant lead when free of the specific EU regulations that inhibit these areas at present.” A long-term side-effect of Brexit is that science has gained significance in political debates. Indeed, since the referendum, all three major parties have recognised its key role in our economy and pledged to boost research budgets in their 2019 manifestos.