Brexit’s Effects on Science

Researchers raise concerns related to collaboration, funding, and regulatory decisions.

Jun 24, 2016
Tracy Vence

WIKIMEDIA, VAUGHAN LEIBERUMBritons yesterday voted in favor of leaving the European Union (E.U.). While the effects of this decision on science will likely play out over the coming months and years, researchers in the U.K. and their collaborators abroad are bracing for change.

Most researchers interviewed by news organizations expressed their disapproval of the decision. As Nature reported: “It was the result that most scientists didn’t want,”which isn’t surprising given the number of researchers in the U.K. who work with scientists elsewhere in the E.U.

“Collaboration on major E.U. projects will be put in jeopardy. We’re not going to be seen as a trusted partner, so even though there’s still two years to come, I think we’ll feel that straight away,” Stephen Curry of Imperial College London told BuzzFeed News. “British scientists will have to work hard in the future to counter the isolationism of Brexit if our science is to continue to thrive,” Paul Nurse of the Francis Crick Institute told reporters (via Nature).

Some scientists also expressed concern that their colleagues from abroad might leave the U.K.

“I think there will be a brain drain, and we need politicians and university leaders to reassure those very talented people that they’re still valued,” James Wilsdon of the University of Sheffield told BuzzFeed.

“I hope that ways will be found to reassure all those non-U.K. E.U. citizens who work in science or the NHS [UK National Health Service] that their futures are secure here, and that we will make sure that whatever happens the U.K. remains an attractive place for others to come and help take medical science and the NHS forward,” Simon Wessely of King’s College London wrote in an email to The Independent.

Then there are the funding-related issues.

“The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union is understandably causing considerable uncertainty for British science and research,” the London-based Wellcome Trust said in a statement.

“The E.U. offers a lot of the research funding my colleagues currently rely on through various grant programs and fellowships,” Katie Mack at the University of Melbourne, Australia, wrote in an email to The Verge. “It will be much harder for universities in the U.K. to recruit research students and postdoctoral researchers from within the E.U., research funding will be less available, and U.K. researchers’ involvement in international experimental and observational collaborations will be at risk.”

As BBC News reported, British scientists received €8.8 billion (approximately $9.8 billion) in E.U. research support from 2007 through 2013. The U.K. only contributed €5.4 billion (approximately $6 billion) to the funding pool during that same time period. “U.K.-based scientists have won about a fifth of all the grants, in terms of value, from the top-tier programs run by the European Research Council,” the BBC noted.

Regulatory questions have also cropped up. The London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA)—the E.U.’s  corollary to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—will likely relocate as a result of Brexit, according to Reuters: “Industry executives fear upheaval at the EMA could snarl the E.U.’s drug approval process, and Britain may have to develop its own domestic regulatory system, leading to further confusion.”