BREXIT vs. SCIENCE Part 2: Brexit and Academia

Author: Layal Liverpool Edited by: Luiz Guidi

Britain votes Brexit

The UK is home to some of the best universities in the world  and receives more money back from the EU in the form of research funding and grants than it sends. The vast majority of academics were in favour of the UK remaining in the EU and many were very vocal during the debate, forecasting negative scenarios for scientific research and academia post-Brexit.

Directly after the vote, the director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former Nobel prize winner, Sir Paul Nurse FRS, told The Independent that “British scientists will have to work hard in the future to counter the isolationism of Brexit if our science is to continue to thrive”.

Since the vote, PM Theresa May has made it clear that “Brexit means Brexit” and emphasised her commitment to “ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as we exit the European Union”. In line with this, May appointed former science minister Greg Clark as the leader of a newly established department responsible for research.


Post-referendum panic
A key concern for academics surrounding Brexit is funding. UK researchers benefit significantly from EU programmes like Horizon 2020 and many feared that Brexit would threaten this, jeopardising the UK’s world-leading position in science. Following the vote, there were several reports of UK academics being jilted by European colleagues who decided that bidding for EU grants alongside UK partners was too risky. Science minister Jo Johnson MP condemned this and urged UK researchers to report any discrimination of this kind.

Following these reports, spokespeople from Universities UK and from the Institute of Physics told the scientific journal Nature that there was not yet enough evidence that the Brexit vote was having a large impact. In response, the Royal Society released a statement arguing that waiting for a large, measurable impact to raise the issue, such as  a reduction in UK-EU collaborations, could be leaving it too late.


Promise to underwrite EU grants post-Brexit

In August, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond MP, calmed  fears down by promising to underwrite EU research projects after Brexit. This came following a call from the President of the Royal Society, Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, and a letter signed by over 1,600 scientists in The Times asking the government to ensure continued access to EU funding and free movement of researchers.

However, this promise only applies to programmes started before the official Brexit date, which, according to the PM, will not happen before 2017. Uncertainty surrounding the date and the influence that Brexit may have on the UK academic staff and students in the future is still a concern for many in academia. Interviews by advocacy group Scientists for EU revealed anecdotal evidence of non-British academics turning down jobs or university places in the UK as a result of this uncertainty as well as reports of several UK academics wishing to leave the UK for the same reason.


Support for students

Another area of uncertainty is the future of the 6% of students at UK universities that come from other EU countries. Currently, EU students in the UK are treated as home students, paying the same fees and eligible to receive the same amount in student loans. Conversely, fees for non-EU international students are uncapped.

Johnson was quick to offer reassurance that EU students starting courses in 2016 will retain their status. However, what will happen in the longer term is of serious concern to UK universities and their prospective students. Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK, highlighted this in a recent address pointing out the urgency of this issue given that UK university applications for 2017 entry have now opened.

University College London Vice-Provost Michael Arthur suggested in an interview with The Economist that the government may be able to kill two birds with one stone by negotiating continued access to European research funding in exchange for offering financial support to non-British EU students. However, political justification for such a policy may be difficult given that about 70% of students will never fully repay their loans, given that any outstanding debt is dropped after 30 years.

Another point of concern is the Erasmus student exchange programme, which enables students to study in another EU country for free for a year. Like Horizon 2020, the scheme is covered by European funds and so it is also under threat of becoming unavailable to UK students post-Brexit. In September, The Guardian reported on an increase in calls for the Brexit Minister David Davis MP to safeguard the programme, although no promises have been made up to the time of writing this piece.


Brain exit

Freedom of movement was central to the debate leading up to the referendum. This remains an important issue, particularly in academia where attracting talented staff goes hand-in-hand with pulling in the best students. Many are concerned that costly and lengthy visa application processes would dissuade prospective staff and students from coming to British universities. Additionally , an ex-President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, recently revealed to the Observer that the Commission has been under pressure to transfer flagship projects to competing European cities. This so-called “brain exit” could be exacerbated by the departure of UK-based European research centres, many of which collaborate with academic research groups.

In an article published in The Telegraph, Goodfellow writes that academics must use their positions to ”convince the UK government to take immediate steps to ensure that current staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities in the long term.”

To promote the international nature of research, The Royal Society and UK national academies issued a joint statement and launched the #ScienceIsGlobal campaign on social media.



Decisions regarding the access of UK researchers to future EU funding schemes, the future status of EU students at UK universities and the freedom of movement for academic staff and students between the UK and EU after Brexit are top of the agenda for academics.

John Beddington, a biologist at Oxford University’s Martin School and a former chief scientific adviser to the British government told Nature that it will be important to have “some sort of champion for science” in the Brexit ministry headed by Davis MP and suggested science minister Johnson should be appointed for the role.

All these decisions will depend on the outcome of UK-EU negotiations once Article 50 has been triggered. Meanwhile, academics – like everyone else – will have to live with a good degree of uncertainty.


Next in the series: Part 3: Brexit and Biotech. What does Brexit mean for biotech? How important is EU funding for biotech industry in the UK?