Brexit: The Divorce Battle over Life Sciences and Funding

Author: Alex Atamian Edited by: Luiz Guidi

Uncertainty is the cloud that is looming over the UK in the midst of the most important divorce battles of our time. Divorce often requires a certain level of compromise between both parties involved. When it comes to science, the issue with the current situation of Brexit is that no one really knows what the compromise would be in terms of scientific funding and scientists involved. An event held by the SIU’s London Division on June 8th, 2017 entitled “Brexit: The Divorce Battle over Life Sciences and Funding” was intended to clear up what individuals from academia, industry, and government are currently thinking about and how they are planning for the future during such unsettling times.

From the academic realm, our first speaker of the night was Kimberly Cornfield who is the Head of Proposal Management at University College London. Kimberly is responsible for leading a niche in-house proposal consultancy service that offers various support services to UCL academics who are coordinating European collaborative proposals under EU’s €80 billion Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding programme. Towards the end of the talk, Kimberly emphasised the fact that, although her organisation is interested in looking for new opportunities in the UK and EU, it is first and foremost keen on securing the European networks and partnerships already in existence. For them, it is “business as usual”, but they also hope for the best when it comes to maintaining ties between the UK and mainland Europe. The talk harkened back to a “keep calm and carry on” sense where one must approach a turbulent time in a composed manner.

Our second speaker, Daniel Green, CEO of Yagrit Ltd, talking about the industry side of things shed some light on his struggles to cope with the large-scale change in financial and social dynamics concerning his company. As CEO, he has raised over $30 million in several early-to-mid stage financing rounds and grants, and deployed the capital to build the company from scratch through regulatory approvals to international sales and strategic alliances. During his talk, he addressed the isolationist/anti-immigration movement that drove the UK to Brexit by stating how his company is made up of people from all over the world, and that it is a “UK company” that is “woven into an international world”. As with other companies within the UK, Daniel’s company is also addressing the possibility of moving to mainland Europe (Switzerland, in this case) to continue maintaining strong ties with Europeans.

The last speaker of our session represented the governmental and legal side of Brexit. Beth Thompson is a science policy advisor who works with UK and EU related legislations and takes an active role in responding to government actions and drafting amendments to parliamentary bills. Beth’s key roles focus on regulation and governance of research involving human participants and EU laws on data protection. In line with this, she mentioned how, after Brexit, the EU could scrutinise the UK’s security system on data exchange more closely since it will no longer be under the same regulatory standards. This could limit the amount and type of data concerning research involving human subjects that the EU would be willing to share with the UK. Despite these speculations, “no one knows quite how the [Brexit] negotiations are going to go”.

Although the general lack of clarity about Brexit’s effect on scientists and their funding could cause a sense of fear of the unknown, many in the scientific community in various sectors are looking for ways to make the transition as smooth as possible. Individuals such as Kimberly are trying their best to secure their bonds with the EU. Others like Beth are doing their best to guide regulation and legislation during these tumultuous times. People in the private sector, like Daniel, are trying to make sure that their international and EU employees are feeling welcomed and appreciated. They are all attempting to protect the very international nature that scientific research blossoms under. Despite all of these attempts, the future still remains as unclear as Theresa May’s definition of a “strong and stable government”.