Part 1: Brexit and the UK Science and Research Industry: What is the British Government’s Response?


Author: James Smythies Edited by: Luiz Guidi

During the early hours of Friday 24th June, it was announced that the United Kingdom had voted in favour of leaving the EU.

Prior to the referendum, a survey administered by the Campaign for Science and Engineering indicated that 93% of research scientists in the UK felt that the EU was of ‘major benefit’ to the nation's research community. It is not difficult to recognise why such an overwhelmingly pro-EU sentiment exists amongst scientists. Between 2007 and 2014, the EU awarded €8.8bn (£7.7bn) to the UK for funding research, development and innovation and what’s more, the EU’s investment in research has been growing up to now. 73% of the increase in UK higher education institute (HEI) funding for science between 2007 and 2014 can be directly attributed to the EU, whilst the UK government invests in science at a lower rate than the majority of EU countries.

It should also be stressed that the role of the EU in scientific research is broader than that of funding alone. The EU provides a platform for the free movement of academic staff, whilst facilitating collaboration and coordination of large-scale research projects that enable the biggest and most challenging scientific problems to be solved more rapidly.

As the referendum approached and the polls indicated that its outcome was too close to call, members of the UK scientific community became increasingly vociferous. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan – the current President of the Royal Society – along with his two predecessors, Sir Paul Nurse and Lord Martin Rees, all publicly supported the UK’s continued membership of the EU. Likewise, none of the 132 Vice-Chancellors of the UK’s HEIs have advocated for the leaving the bloc.

On the other hand, a minority of UK-based scientists, spearheaded by Professor Angus Dalgleish and ‘Scientists for Britain’, put forward the case to leave the EU. However, their arguments tended to focus not on potential increased prosperity of UK science outside the EU – they, in fact, made broader political arguments for Brexit with the assumption that the UK government would have no qualms about matching the EU’s current research investment policies.

Meanwhile, from the perspective of UK biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, a carefully constructed report by Deloitte outlined the questions surrounding the future of these industries if Britain were to leave the EU. Unlike academic science, larger biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies tend not to be funded by the EU. The most significant issues post-Brexit for these industries concerns pharmaceutical regulation and access to talent. UK-based pharmaceutical companies will likely have increased difficulty in attracting talented EU scientists if they become subject to new - and potentially expensive and time-consuming - residence, visa and work permit controls. Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies based in a UK that is no longer a member of the EU would cease to be provided with single market authorisation to conduct clinical trials across the EU, thus leading to delays in drug testing procedures.

Nevertheless, in spite of the overwhelming support for EU membership amongst the UK science community, the country voted in favour of leaving the EU. So, how has the government managed the fall-out from Brexit within the research industry? What commitments have the government made to the UK science and research industry? And what are the outstanding issues that must be resolved?

Less than a month after the referendum, the Guardian published details of a confidential survey of EU-funded researchers based within the UK’s Russell Group universities, aiming to reveal the early effects of Brexit on UK academia. Some cases indicated a backlash against UK scientists – with one particular respondent stating that an EU project officer requested that the lead investigator on an EU-awarded grant dropped all UK partners from the consortium due to the EU not being able to guarantee UK funding in the long term.

A further month on, in a move aimed at quelling discrimination and doubts over UK research funding, Philip Hammond (Chancellor of the Exchequer) provided assurances that all UK-based scientists that have been awarded Horizon 2020 EU funding prior to Britain officially leaving the EU will have their funding awards underwritten by the Treasury following Britain’s departure from the EU. Many scientists welcomed the government’s commitment, although the likes of Dame Anne Glover (Vice-principal of the University of Aberdeen and former chief scientific advisor to the EU) and Dr Mike Galsworthy (Founder of ‘Scientists for EU’ and Senior Research Associate in the DAHR at UCL) reiterated the need for further government-led pressure to be applied to the European Commission in order to monitor and prevent discrimination towards UK-based applicants to EU funding opportunities.

The aforementioned fears appear to be coming to fruition. Former head of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, recently disclosed being aware of behind-the-scenes lobbying by other EU member states who were encouraging the transfer of key EU-funded research centres to their countries.

Whilst preliminary funding commitments from the Treasury partially ease anxiety among academia, valid fears remain with regards to the ability ofscientists who are EU nationals to remain employed in a post-Brexit Britain. The government has yet to clarify its position with regards to EU nationals and their right to work in the UK post-Brexit. Talent being lost to competing HEIs and other research organisations could be equally, if not more, damaging than any potential long-term reduction in research funding from the UK government.

For as long as the government deliberates its Brexit strategy, uncertainty will remain within the science and innovation industry. One can only hope that the damage evoked by this period of uncertainty will be minimal and short-lived, and that the UK research industry can re-establish its assured foundations.

Next in the series:  Part 2: Brexit and Academia. How has the academic science been affected by Brexit so far? What is the forecast for the near and far future?