Safeguarding the UK as a scientific superpower – what does Brexit mean?

For UK scientific and medical research to thrive, it is imperative that the UK can attract and retain the finest scientific minds, this is an undisputed fact. The ability for the UK to compete on an international stage is dependent on our ability to attract excellent international talent.

The Royal Society outlines that 17% of academic researchers (32,000 people) in the UK come from the EU, a number that has grown by 94% in the ten years from 2005 to 2015, with a further 12% coming from outside the EU. But it’s not just about attracting talent, it’s about UK talent also being able to develop their careers or work with others around the world. We know that almost 40% of UK doctoral students take up a position in another country following their PhDs to complete their training, and that more than 70% of active UK researchers have trained or worked abroad in their research fields.

The impact of Brexit, and it isn’t even here yet, is clear. Across institutions, often anecdotally, recruiting non-UK researchers is becoming more difficult as the UK becomes a less attractive proposition, and many researchers are concerned about the impact of visa requirements. Similarly, there are cases of European PhD students abandoning studies as Brexit looms – figures from the Russell Group universities suggest a 9% drop in EU students starting postgraduate courses in 2017/18. A decrease in EU researchers and research students in the UK has the potential to put discoveries and research innovation in the UK at risk.

But it’s not just about people, it’s also about funding. UK investment in science straggles behind that of other countries and so the UK is dependent on EU Framework funding, the current of which is Horizon 2020 initiated in 2014. Under the previous seven-year funding framework the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Development (2007–2013) UK researchers received €8.8 billion, the second largest recipient of funds. All member states contribute to the fund and for the Seventh Framework the UK contributed €5.4 billion. Under Horizon 2020, the UK has already received €4.6 billion to date. Currently, the UK and the EU’s intent is that for the duration of the programme the eligibility of UK researchers for funding remains unchanged, and this was signed off by both UK and EU negotiators and further reiterated in Summer 2018.

What happens in the event of a no-deal? 
Contingency plans, drawn up in 2016, include the UK Government guaranteeing funding for EU projects submitted and successful before 29th March 2019. This guarantee will cover all successful bids for the full duration of projects. Such a guarantee does not, however, cover consortia projects where groups from several countries work together to optimise thinking and skills. It was clear in an early post-referendum survey by the Guardian newspaper that UK researchers were experiencing discrimination in EU-funded projects and UK researchers being dropped from EU funding bids, just in case a no-deal becomes a reality. It is likely that this will escalate as March looms and may take some time to recover post-March if a deal is successful.

Some UK scientists do see potential benefits from Brexit. Europe is traditionally very conservative with respect to regulation, be it genetically modified crops or embryonic stem cell research. The UK as a more bullish partner within Europe has tempered such conservatism to drive Europe and the UK forward as world leaders in many fields. When the UK leaves the EU, there is a theoretical risk that the EU’s natural conservatism will reign, damaging the future innovation. As a lone entity we may be able to continue to pave the way for regulated innovation.

Currently, UK science is plagued with uncertainty from the bottom up – people to infrastructure – and this uncertainty is unlikely to change in the remaining 3-month countdown to the 29th March. The UK Government’s recently departed Science Minister Sam Gyimah said in a recent interview following a letter from an eminent group of Nobel Laureates and prize-winning scientists to the European Commissions Claude Juncker “We all recognize that a chaotic Brexit will be a significant setback for science. That is why we have got a plan to ensure that, deal or no deal, there will be no cliff-edge for UK science” and it will hopefully become clear in the next few weeks and months what that plan might be. A united Europe that includes the UK, even post-Brexit if possible, is a major driver of world class research. Without a pragmatic approach there can be limited synergy and both the UK and European science will be poorer for it.

For further reading see:
UK research and the European Union – People June 2018.
https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/brexit-uk-science/uk-research-eu-people-june-2018.pdf

Horizon 2020 funding if there’s no Brexit deal https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/horizon-2020-funding-if-theres-no-brexit-deal/horizon-2020-funding-if-theres-no-brexit-deal–2

UK Research Office https://www.ukro.ac.uk/Documents/factsheet_brexit.pdf?pubdate=20180843
https://royalsociety.org/~/media/news/2018/brexit-nobels-fields-EU-letter.pdf

The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/oct/23/hard-brexit-cripple-uk-science-nobel-scientists-may-juncker