At this point in time it is absolutely understandable that nearly every person in the EU27 and UK has the urge to start screaming into a pillow the minute they hear the word ‘Brexit’. The UK’s (or rather England and Wales’) decision to leave the European Union in 2016 has turned out to be, not completely unexpectedly, a complete omnishambles (to quote our favourite Alastair-Campbell-inspired Scot named Malcolm Tucker (The Thick of It)).
We have already heard the stories about Brexit being bad for the NHS, how it will make running out of groceries a real possibility, will potentially tear families apart, and will generally make life more difficult for EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU. However, science is another, perhaps underreported, casualty of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The most obvious way Brexit will affect UK science (particularly if the ever more likely ‘no-deal’ scenario becomes a reality) is by the reduction of EU funding available to researchers in the UK. Funding is one of the pillars of science, and though Horizon 2020 eligibility will not be affected post-Brexit, funding from the likes of the European Research Council will very definitely not be available to UK researchers (see also the British Neuroscience Association’s latest update on Brexit). Unless the UK government will fully compensate the lost EU funding (with the state of the current government you would be forgiven if you were rather…pessimistic about that prospect), it seems likely that the fuel that keeps the scientific enterprise going could soon run out…or at the very least be reduced.
In addition to the issue of funding, the simple fact that the majority of non-UK researchers in academia come from other EU countries is a major issue. A no-deal Brexit where the UK becomes a third country and EU citizens will have to go through the tedious immigration constraints that already haunt non-EU, non-UK researchers, will very likely make the UK a less attractive option for EU scientists. Add to that the fact that many UK researchers have worked or trained abroad (including in the EU), that about 35% of postgraduate researchers in the UK are from the EU, and that over 5000 EU researchers brought EU funding with them, you can see that we have a bit of a sticky situation.
In a Nature editorial published late September, it is outlined that the tangible effects of Brexit are already seen. UK researchers are seen as a risky bet by EU academic institutions and these universities are therefore teaming up with institutions somewhere other than the UK. Of course the issue of funding comes up yet again, but more poignant to me is the fact that many UK and EU scientists are feeling uncertainty. Believe it or not, scientists are people too! They fall in love, they move abroad, they have children, they build lives, and make friends like everyone else. UK scientists in the EU and EU scientists in the UK will not only be feeling the effects of Brexit in their careers, but also psychologically and socially. Mixed marriages and relationships will be complicated by the uncertainty. Some EU countries do not allow dual nationalities, forcing scientists (and others) to make the unfair choice between the country of their birth and the place they currently call home. Sometimes it gets even messier with citizen children and non-citizen parents or partners. Understandably some EU citizens got worried after the Windrush scandal broke this summer, with fears of a Home Office “mistake” being repeated in the future.
Regardless of one’s opinion on Brexit, I think we can agree that the way it is currently being handled by the UK government is suboptimal. It is incumbent upon the UK government to see Brexit a little less as some quest to sort out internal party conflict, or to stubbornly carry out a very subjective interpretation of a mandate, and more as something that will affect millions of people, businesses, families, and importantly, science. A bit more level-headedness and rationality and a bit less rhetoric would at the very least make the situation a lot less painful.