Science in UK likely to suffer from a no-deal Brexit

What is the future of UK scientific research in a no-deal Brexit scenario?

Parmveer Singh
30th October 2018
Photo by George Hodan on Public Domain Pictures

While most Brexit discussions centre on issues such as trade, migration, and the amount of cash the UK must pony-up for the divorce, the harmful effects on scientific research are often overlooked. At the moment, the UK is one of the top contributors to scientific research worldwide and third for international research collaborations. This is likely to change if a no-deal Brexit occurs.

If the UK pulls out from the EU without any terms, British research institutes will likely suffer due to reduced access to EU grants. The UK is one of the largest beneficiaries of EU research funding, receiving over £1 billion annually, and even though the UK will still be able to apply for some EU grants, it will be a fraction of the total grants offered by the EU. Specifically, the UK would be ineligible to apply for three major grants that currently make up almost half of the total funding coming from the EU.

Thus, the UK will lose millions of pounds of research funding annually if a no-deal Brexit happens. In fact, the UK is already winning less EU Horizon 2020 research grants since the Brexit referendum was held.

The British government is confident that Brexit will have minimal effect on research funding. Universities and Science Minister Sam Gyimah ensures that £7 billion has been set aside to cover any funding deficit post-Brexit. However, this money was originally set aside with the intent of supplementing EU grants to improve the UK’s research output.

All things considered, only a small percentage of funding comes from the EU, which could be covered by the British government, though research output would remain stagnant at best.

There is an overwhelming amount of disapproval of Brexit by most scientists. Brexit is already making it difficult to retain top scientists and will likely make it difficult to attract new ones.

An internal survey conducted at the Francis Crick Institute in London, the largest biomedical research centre in Europe, indicated that 40% of the scientists are from EU countries and that 78% of those scientists would be more inclined to leave the UK after a no-deal Brexit. Scientists are worried about the uncertainty of funding, the availability of jobs, and establishing collaborations with scientists outside of the UK post-Brexit.

Research laboratories are already feeling the effects of Brexit – about 45% of laboratories surveyed at the Francis Crick Institute indicated that they have had trouble recruiting new scientists and have been hit with increased costs. The decline of the British pound has led to large chemical and life science companies, such as Sigma-Aldrich, significantly increasing the cost of consumables, while in some cases, prices of consumables have doubled and are expected to continue to increase. With no additional funding currently available by the British government, some research groups may flounder before the dust of Brexit even settles.

Another major hurdle that comes with a no-deal Brexit for scientists is the lack of free movement between the UK and European countries.

Scientists rely heavily on collaborations to push their research to the next level. Without free movement, it will become more challenging for researchers to attend conferences and present their work as visiting speakers, which will prevent the formation of new collaborations and make it harder to attract new talent to the group.

Collaborations in the scientific community are so important that 29 Nobel Laureates penned a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, insisting on a Brexit deal that preserves the movement of scientists between the UK and EU.

Some large companies within the UK employing researchers are not taking any chances with Brexit and have already begun preparing for the worst.

For example, AstraZeneca, a large pharmaceutical company, has halted investments in its British manufacturing due to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, while the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London has begun slowing down its work in the UK and relocating to the Netherlands.

The British government does not have any plans to replace science-related jobs that are moved to the EU, which will reduce the number of jobs available to scientists in the UK.

Even with the British government's funding guarantees, science is likely to suffer in the UK post-Brexit. Not only will a no-deal Brexit lead to a loss of world-renowned scientists, but the lack of funding, collaborative opportunities, and science-related jobs that it will bring about may also discourage younger generations to pursue careers in science if they wish to remain in Britain. Simply put, the uncertainty of a no-deal Brexit has most scientists on edge.


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