How will Brexit Impact Science in the UK?

Most British scientists had wanted to stay with the EU because of the concomitant ease of collaborations and access to funding.

An overwhelming majority of British scientists and researchers had been rooting for the UK to stay with the European Union, so the result of referendum earlier this morning – to ‘Leave’ – has left the wider scientific community shaken. Most British scientists wanted to stay with the EU because of two broad reasons: mobility and funding.

Being part of the EU eased mobility between its member countries, allowing scientists to move and collaborate freely between institutions in 27 states with few restrictions. This engendered a redistribution of knowledge and skill, especially between such disparate countries as the better-off UK, France and Germany, and the worse-off Spain, Italy, Croatia, etc. Moreover, the lack of restrictions has also allowed complicated multinational projects, such as the TRANSEURO clinical trial (involving France, Germany, Sweden and the UK) and the ITER experimental fusion reactor, to proceed in a harmonised manner as well as encouraged private players to collaborate with universities across borders on life-sciences research (e.g., the ADITEC programme to accelerate vaccine development).

Second, researchers across Europe have benefitted greatly from hefty funding allocations by the EU. More than 19% of the UK’s research funding allocation comes from the union. Particularly notable funding programmes include the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellowship Programme and the Horizon 2020 framework. The former funds 9,000 fellows every year to conduct their research within the EU, and is a subset of the Horizon 2020 framework that has a pot of EUR 74.8 billion to spend on promoting research industry leadership in 2014-2020. Another subset of the framework is the European Research Council, which funds high-risk research. More than EUR 6 billion of the EUR 13.1 billion at its disposal has been used to fund British, French and German researchers; most of its grant-recipients are from the UK. Overall, UK scientists have received 15.4% of Horizon 2020 funds.

In fact, British Prime Minister David Cameron had told a committee in May 2016, should the UK leave the EU, the country would be £36 billion down on tax receipts “and so have less money to put into research, agriculture or anything else”.

Apart from these two reasons in favour of staying with the EU, there are two reasons against leaving it. The first is intellectual property (IP). Although the UK is yet to negotiate its status as an associate country to the EU, the terms specify that the IP arising from collaborations funded by the union can belong only to the member states. As a result, even if the UK continues to contribute to research in the EU as an associate, its researchers won’t be able to exploit the results.

The second has to do with the terms of the UK’s exit, which will be negotiated per Article 50 of the EU constitution. What shapes the exit can take is often discussed against the backdrop of the Norwegian and Swiss ‘models’. Both these countries have opted to stay out of the EU. In Norway’s case, the country adopted many of the union’s trade regulations in order to remain a part of its internal market. Switzerland, however, voted in 2014 to restrict access to migrants, contravening the EU’s free-movement requirements, and was immediately removed from the Horizon 2020 framework. The UK could be meted out the same harsh treatment – especially since the Brexit referendum was motivated by the issue of immigration – if only so the EU can signal a warning to other member states that might be thinking of leaving.

Nonetheless, though the broader mobility and funding advantages remain, those researchers in favour of leaving the EU want to do so because of tardiness in receiving EU funds as well as wanting a greater say in how funds it gives to the EU are spent. On March 2016, the noted immunologist Angus Dalgleish argued on Newsnight that if the UK were able to leave the EU, it would save its EUR 17 billion in membership fees and be able to support domestic research from that corpus, especially to prop up the ailing National Health Service. However, critics were quick to point out that the EUR 17 billion ‘saved’ ignores the funding and support that British scientists receive in return.