Hand drawing a red line between the UK and the rest of the European Union. Concept of Brexit.
Hand drawing a red line between the UK and the rest of the European Union. Concept of Brexit.

How Brexit Is Transforming the UK’s STEM Community

Scientists face the ramifications of the country’s departure from the European Union, from delays in laboratory supplies to difficulties hiring international students and faculty.

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After a year teaching an algorithm to differentiate between the echolocation calls of different bat species, Katarina decided she was simply too greedy to focus on one field of science...

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Nov 1, 2021

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In the months leading up to 2021, Annela Seddon was anxious. In mid-August 2020, the University of Bristol physicist had just hired an Italian postdoc to join a collaboration between UK and Kenyan researchers to develop a rapid diagnostic tool for tuberculosis. Initially, it looked like the postdoc would be able to come to Seddon’s lab immediately to start on the lab project, for which funding was time-limited. But as COVID-19 cases surged and sent the UK into a national lockdown in November, it became increasingly clear that the postdoc wouldn’t be able to come before the end of the year. In waiting until 2021, he would become one of the first EU scientists to travel to a post-Brexit Britain. 

As of this year, EU citizens planning to work in the UK have been subject to the same entry requirements as those from many other countries around the world. Seddon’s postdoc had to go through the lengthy, stressful process of applying for a visa. Ultimately, it took until May for him to make it to Bristol, causing both him and Seddon to lose five months on the project, which was already tight on time. What Seddon says particularly upsets her is what she perceives as a lack of planning by the British government to avoid adverse impacts of Brexit on science. “It makes me really sad. I feel like the UK has in a way taken a step back [by] restricting a pool of brilliant people.” 

UK scientists have long enjoyed what many see as an academic continuum between the island country and continental Europe, built up through decades of freedom of movement and scientific collaboration. Now, Seddon and others are facing the practical consequences of Brexit—the result of a 2016 referendum on the nation’s roughly four-decade EU membership. That was followed by years of uncertainty and negotiations over the specifics of the future UK-EU relationship, the legislation around which came into effect this year (although on paper, Britain left the bloc at the end of January 2020; see timeline below). 

While the emerging impacts of Brexit include everything from funding concerns to delays in getting lab supplies from the EU, some of the greatest frustrations that researchers shared with The Scientist this year relate to the challenges of recruiting EU research students and staff. With Brexit’s full effects yet to be felt, many say they fear that these initial experiences are just a preview for a long-term unraveling of the close-knit British-EU research partnership—and ultimately, of Britain’s standing in global science. 

“That’s my . . . concern—that in five, ten, fifteen years’ time, the UK will be a less attractive place for people to start their academic and scientific careers,” remarks Robin Mason, the University of Birmingham’s pro-vice-chancellor for international matters. “I think it’s almost inevitable in the medium to longer term that the UK’s status within Europe as a scientific powerhouse will be diminished.” 

A rocky start

One of the most immediate effects of the 2016 referendum on scientists was a sudden uncertainty about what the future of UK research would look like; it wasn’t clear until December 2020 what—if any—kind of future relationship negotiators would secure with the EU. As early as 2019, hundreds more EU academics than usual left the UK, according to a report from Times Higher Education based on data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency. Giulio Marini, a sociologist at University College London (UCL) who specializes in higher education, suspects that this was likely due to a perceived sense of hostility against Europeans as well as a lack of clarity over their future status in the country, among other factors. 

I think it’s almost inevitable in the medium to longer term that the UK’s status within Europe as a scientific powerhouse will be diminished.

—Robin Mason, University of Birmingham

Also thrown into uncertainty was the ability of UK researchers to participate in the EU’s roughly $90 billion funding program, Horizon 2020, and its more than $111 billion successor, Horizon Europe. Around 2018 and 2019, Kaustubh Adhikari, a biostatistician at The Open University in the UK, recalls that many EU research groups hesitated to collaborate with UK academics on joint grant proposals because it wasn’t clear if they’d be able to keep the grant after Brexit. That caused some UK scientists, including some of Adhikari’s colleagues, to be excluded on applications by European collaborators, he adds. 

To many scientists’ relief, some of the uncertainty triggered by the referendum result was resolved in December 2020, when policymakers settled on a number of terms regarding trade, fishing rights, and other matters, including an agreement that the UK would remain part of the Horizon funding scheme in return for a contribution of around £15 billion ($20 billion). (UK members of parliament have since expressed concerns over the UK’s ability to meet that contribution, according to the Independent, and the final sign-off on the EU-UK Horizon Europe agreement has yet to be made.) 

Yet even as these arrangements came into effect in 2021, other, unanticipated problems began to emerge. In January, many scientists were suffering shortages and delays in laboratory materials due to global supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic. But Pedro Silva Couto, a PhD student specializing in stem cell manufacturing at UCL, noticed some unusual delays in products from the EU, which appeared to have become stuck at British customs amid confusion over the new paperwork required to import goods into the UK, now a non-EU country.  

Apparently fearing such delays, one supplier of a cell culture medium critical to Silva Couto’s research held off on shipping the medium at all for nearly four weeks, causing him to lose an entire batch of stem cells he’d been culturing for months, Silva Couto tells The Scientist. Much to his frustration, he had to give up on that particular experiment. “I guess I’ll never know . . . what would have happened with these cells,” he recalls. Other labs across the UK have described similar delays, shortages, and increased costs that have created obstacles to conducting experimental work. 

As a Portuguese national, Silva Couto had also worried about his status in the UK. Fortunately, he says, in 2020 he secured the right to stay and work there for the foreseeable future, like many other EU citizens who had at that time lived continuously in the UK for at least six months and so were eligible to apply for short- or long-term residency. Those arriving this year or beyond, including Seddon’s postdoc, face additional financial and logistical barriers that researchers say are set to become some of the longer-lasting consequences of Brexit.   

The UK’s departure from the European Union began with a referendum vote in 2016, although it took until 2021 to be fully implemented. After several years of uncertainty, scientists are now experiencing some of the practical consequences for research.  
THE SCIENTIST STAFF

Reduced mobility

Seddon says she worries that early-career scientists from the EU—particularly PhD students and postdocs—will be hardest hit by the new visa requirements. For her postdoc, a major issue was that the application process took so long, adding more stress to an already unstable career stage. By delaying his start, it also shortened his already brief contract. “We’re asking someone to upend their life, to move across continents, to come and work with us . . . and then we make it more complicated for them,” Seddon says. “I think that’s desperately unfair.” 

UK scientists also describe widespread confusion around the process of enrolling students in less conventional types of research positions. Appointing PhD students on a part-time basis such that they’re based in the EU but can travel freely to the UK for conferences and meetings used to be a simple affair, Adhikari says. However, as he was trying to enroll a German computer scientist as a part-time PhD student before term started in October 2020, the UK government still hadn’t issued any guidance on what the visa process would be. There weren’t any guidelines for several months, Adhikari recalls. As a result, the student had to wait until October 2021 to begin his PhD, which “delays his projects by a year,” Adhikari says. 

Money is another concern, with the costs of transferring from the EU to the UK having soared since the beginning of the year.

Ricardo Grau-Crespo, a computational materials scientist at the University of Reading, was similarly puzzled about what kind of visa—if any—was required to invite a computer modeling PhD student from Spain to his lab via the Erasmus scheme, an EU academic exchange system that allows undergraduates and some graduate students to conduct research in other countries, principally in Europe. “My university is doing what they can to help but . . . up to this point, we still haven’t completely figured out what the visa process is,” Grau-Crespo told The Scientist in August. 

More problematically, as of 2022 Britain will no longer be participating in Erasmus programs at all. “Often, these low-key PhD visits are like an initial step to explore collaboration to then coordinate a bigger grant application. It is important that we figure out a way of continuing these exchanges,” Grau-Crespo says.

Money is another concern, with the costs of transferring from the EU to the UK having soared since the beginning of the year. An application for a student visa can cost nearly £348 ($475), while a skilled worker visa for staff comes to between £610 ($830) and £1,408 ($1,900), expenses that young scientists may have to foot themselves if they’re not covered by grants. Applicants are also required to pay a roughly £624 ($850) annual surcharge for general healthcare. 

For PhD students that do make it to the UK, there are additional costs: at the University of Birmingham, for instance, Europeans working in some disciplines now have to pay international fees of nearly £25,000 ($33,900) a year, compared to less than £5000 ($6,700) pre-Brexit, and EU undergraduates have seen a similar rise in costs. Mason adds that this is likely one reason for the drop in PhD applications he’s observed at the University of Birmingham this year. The drop is disproportionately affecting STEM subjects, for which PhD students are a critical resource, says Mason. “I’m really concerned about it.”   

Infectious disease epidemiologist Anne Cori of Imperial College London fears that postdoc positions offered in the UK will also be less attractive now than before, in their case due to shortened contracts—likely meaning fewer scientific publications—as well as the increased costs and uncertainty, she writes in an email to The Scientist. Anecdotally, Grau-Crespo says he noticed less interest than expected from EU applicants for a postdoctoral position he was recently recruiting for.  

While the reduced mobility after Brexit has had the most visible impacts for early-career researchers so far, Marini says he expects to see similar trends for EU faculty. The paperwork involved in moving to the UK, plus perceived hostility toward Europeans, among other challenges, may discourage many scientists from moving to the UK. For now, though, Mason says he hasn’t yet noticed any problems in recruiting faculty from the EU. Between the UK’s new “global talent visa”—which provides an accelerated immigration pathway for certain scientists and technicians—and other new visa types, “we seem to be attracting the talent that we need.”  

The road ahead

Ten months after Brexit took effect, scientists continue to identify challenges associated with the resulting changes. At a recent meeting of a network of Dutch academics in the UK, for instance, members voiced a number of concerns, from recognizing certain EU certifications in the UK to the uncertainty around the UK’s new data privacy regulations, which could affect the sharing of clinical samples, according to the network’s cofounder, Ewoud Compeer. Funding is also a long-term worry; there is still uncertainty around how long the UK will participate in European funding schemes, for instance. “This is something that’s going to take a couple of years before we know what the full impact is,” Seddon says.   

Mason says he reckons that some of the negative impact of Brexit on the UK’s standing in science could be averted if its government builds new research partnerships with countries within the EU or elsewhere. One example where Adhikari sees that already happening is with the Turing scheme, a replacement for the UK’s participation in the Erasmus scheme which allows UK students to study in other countries, including distant countries such as Australia and Fiji (although unlike the Erasmus scheme it doesn’t reciprocally support students coming to the UK). 

“The problem is that all these places are far away,” Adhikari says, “and we also don’t have a history of academic exchange [with them] as much as with the EU. So it’s going to be difficult to establish [equivalent] relationships there.” Now that the UK’s deep relationship to its closest research powerhouse is severed, “the disruptions are going to continue,” he adds. “And of course, it’s going to be detrimental to UK science.”