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Brexit Will Scare Away Scientists, Even if the Funding Remains

2016 was the year of astounding election results.  Although 45’s win certainly takes the prize for the biggest shock to complacent liberals, the Brexit vote put almost every aspect of the UK’s future in a haze of uncertainty.  Only after the ballots were counted did many “Remainers” begin to contemplate the tangible effects Brexit could have: reduced freedom of movement, legitimization of xenophobia, and undermined diplomatic relations between the UK and EU member states.  We also must consider the effect of Brexit on research. Not only does the EU fund million-pound research projects but Europe, along with rest of the world, provides the most valuable resource for science: great minds.

As a British scientist working in Canada, my country’s rejection of international partnership felt somewhat personal.  The message was isolationist, irrational, and spiteful.  Storms of hate had been whipped up by blatant campaign lies, including the now-infamous “Let’s give our National Health Service the £350 million the EU takes every week”.  But what would be the fate of science funding in the UK?  Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received €8.8bn in grants from EU research funds, while only having to contribute €5.4bn to the scheme.  How were we going to fill this void?  For a country obsessed with maintaining its position at the world science table, Brexit seemed to be an act of self sabotage.

Concerned researchers had therefore hoped that HM Government’s recent paper on its aspirations for post-Brexit science would provide clarity to a work sector uncertain of its future. However, the report fell short.  The widely-lambasted piece found no safe audience, and an especially-scathing article compares the meandering document to a Taylor Swift breakup song.  The paper sets out the Government’s commitment “to maintaining the UK’s status as a world leader in science and innovation and strengthening its science and research base”.  Throughout the entire document, the Department for Exiting the European Union makes vague references to maintaining relationships with EU science institutions, while unabashedly listing all the sources of funding Brexit has put into jeopardy.  

The largest party the UK may have uninvited itself from is Horizon 2020– the EU’s €80bn, 7-year science funding programme.  Although non-member states are eligible in some cases to receive money from Horizon 2020, and may attend the programme’s committee meetings, they have no tangible sway in its design or management.  This fact seemed to confuse the authors of the Government’s Brexit Science report, who claim that sitting in meetings provides non-voting members with a “degree of influence”.

The destabilized access to Horizon 2020 funds is just one manifestation of the self-destructiveness of Brexit.  Many Brexit campaigners lamented the systems of the EU as bureaucratic and ineffective. They claimed that the single market was stifling global trade.  But how better to change these systems than being one of the most influential countries within the EU?  With the Brexit vote, the UK removed any chance of affecting change within Europe, and instead of having influence in the distribution of European Research Council funds, British science may have to jump through several hoops to receive any money at all.

Theresa May’s government has acknowledged that the shortcomings in science funding need to be filled.  She has committed to underwriting grant proposals submitted to Horizon 2020 while the UK is still in the EU and even announced a £4.7bn increase in funding for applied scientific research.  The focus on applied science is subtle but critical.  The European Research Council is praised for its long term, generous support of fundamental science (i.e. they support important work that doesn’t sound flashy or have direct societal relevance).  

Shifting priority from basic, investigative science to applied research has profound implications for almost all scientists.  Canada is also at a crucial point in finding the correct balance, with the Naylor Report calling for a $1.3bn injection into basic research.  Applied research is well-known for attracting industrial sponsorship; perhaps May’s funding of flashy robotics labs and medical devices is a last-ditch and superficial attempt to convince science businesses to stay in the UK.

Throwing money at the problem perhaps embodies the Tories’ obsession with capital at the expense of social progress.  Although funding is crucial for science, the most important part of research is too often forgotten: scientists.  The bulk of science bench work in universities is carried out by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.  Many of these scientists – including my former colleagues – are EU citizens, whose future in the UK has been cast into doubt.  Although a poll showed that 75 per cent of Britons said they would like to see the same amount or more moving to study, the students themselves seem not to share the same amicable attitude.  A separate survey of international students revealed fears about rising tuition fees, visas, and even political instability.  

While those concerns are hardly shocking, a survey of EU citizens with postgraduate degrees working in the UK revealed a more dramatic trend.  56 percent said they were very likely or quite likely to leave the UK before March 2019, the deadline for Brexit.  The healthcare sector looks to be especially undermined, with 84 percent of EU workers saying they would leave the UK.  With this brain drain looming, it seems that maintaining the UK’s position in world research rankings might be harder to solve than first thought.

Another aspect to consider is the treatment of international residents in the UK.  Hate crimes, seemingly legitimized by the vote, soared by 41 per cent after Brexit.  Much like the resurfacing of white nationalism in the US, it seems important to make the distinction between a problem’s visibility and its occurrence. Anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiments have long existed in the UK but are now reinforced and legitimized by the vote.  How will the almost-daily reports and viral videos of racist abuse affect those considering doctoral or postdoctoral research in the UK?

Theresa May needs to tread carefully if she is to achieve her ambition of a “Brexit that works for Britain” without alienating the skilled workers who drive innovation. Also, she should look not to depart from the EU model of funding basic, investigator-led science in favour of headline-grabbing applied research.  Time may be running out for her to convince young scientists to consider the UK for their careers, especially when so many other countries are establishing themselves as centres of expanding research excellence.

Jay Bassan is a PhD student in the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto, focusing on cancer-related research in chemical biology. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford. 

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