Ongoing UK Research Problems (9) – Brexit Uncertainties
(November 23rd, 2017) Following the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK government has resolved to be the first nation ever to withdraw from the European Union. In the absence of any previous example nor any clear plan for how the UK will achieve its divorce, uncertainty reigns.
A ‘consultative’ referendum on the UK’s adhesion to the EU was held on June 23rd 2016 in response to a long-running political leadership battle within the Conservative Party. Supported by the right-wing popular press, statements that could rival with Donald Trump’s ‘post-truth alternative facts’ and the involvement of shadowy Big Data companies with experience in psychological warfare, the close-run result (51.9% vs. 48.1%) seemed to be a victory for emotion over reason. Following a new leadership battle, the UK’s governing Conservative Party selected Theresa May as Prime Minister and she promptly vowed to leave the EU in accordance with “the wishes of the people.”
Unfortunately, this is a lot simpler to say than to do, especially if you have no credible plan for how to replace 40 years of integrated operation within the world’s largest trading block. University academics and research scientists in the UK appear to have been almost unanimously opposed to leaving the EU and for good reasons. In addition to the symbolism of shutting borders to the free movement of EU workers, including scientists and students, the proposed (but still undefined) exit from the EU will have the effect of cutting extensive research collaborations across Europe, both in terms of an open exchange of research ideas and, more critically for a research community that has faced consistent UK government budget cuts over the last 3 decades, with respect to access to lots of extra EU research funding.
In December 2016, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee reported on the consequences that Brexit was already having on the research community. However, despite its title, “A Time for Boldness: EU Membership and UK Science After the Referendum”, the situation it described was far from inspiring. “House of Lords fail to boldly go” commented ‘Scientists for EU’.
Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, and a member of the boards of Science is Vital and the Campaign for Science and Engineering, warned that “Post-Brexit UK research needs bolder action from this timid government”. Faced with the Prime Minister’s insistence that she would soon trigger the EU’s Article 50 and formally start the 2 year period of ‘divorce proceedings’ between the UK and the EU (which she did on March 29th 2017), Curry stressed that time was not on Britain’s side if “we want to protect and grow our world-leading research base.” After months of “uncertainty and mixed messaging – on access to funding, on Britain’s attitude to overseas students, and on the status of EU nationals working in UK universities and research institutes”, he called on the government to show some “audacity” to stabilise the situation.
UK science has become increasingly dependent on EU research funding. Yet, within weeks of the Brexit referendum, it was reported that some EU researchers were already asking their UK collaborators to withdraw from joint funding applications due to fears that their British partners would be disqualified if and when Brexit happened. In August 2016, the Treasury tried to reassure researchers, announcing that the UK government would underwrite UK applicants for research funding under the EU’s Horizon 2020 program, even if collaborative projects extended beyond the UK’s membership of the EU.
Although this move may have rescued some applications, David Lomas, representing UK university hospitals before the House of Commons health select committee in February 2017, told MPs that - due to Brexit - British medical researchers were being removed by European colleagues from applications for EU medical research grants. Lomas said that Britain’s position at the forefront of medial advancement would be threatened were it no longer able to access European funding.
This situation is not helped by the ongoing uncertainty and no-one knows what is going to happen beyond 2020, when the EU begins its next phase of research funding (Framework 9). Curry insisted that it was not enough for UK participation in projects initiated under the present program to be underwritten in the event of Brexit happening before they were completed. “EU researchers looking to build collaborations for the long term naturally want to have confidence that UK partners will be able to participate beyond the duration of a first project grant. Such relationships often remain productive for many years.” Instead, Britain needs a clear plan for replacing EU funding mechanisms that should be in place well before negotiations with the EU are concluded.
At the end of 2016, the UK government promised increased investment in R&D that would boost the annual R&D budget by £2 billion upto 2020. But it remained unclear if this increase was made in anticipation of the loss of EU research funds, or whether any of the new money would be targeted specifically to boost international research activity post-Brexit.
The mantra of immigration control, exacerbated by the “insular currents” stirred by the Brexit referendum, is at the root of other problems. Theresa May’s vocal irritation with overseas students in her time as Home Secretary seems only to have gotten louder since she became Prime Minister. In doing so she has drowned out reassurances from the Minister for Higher Education that the government has no plans to limit overseas student numbers. However, the uncertainty has again had effects since there are fewer overseas students applying to study in UK universities.
“Students aren’t the only people feeling the sharp end of Brexit”. EU nationals working across the research and higher education sector as researchers and in other key roles – many of them settled here with their families – have been tossed into “an almost Kafkaesque nightmare of uncertainty”. In theory, those with five year’s residency can apply for permanent residence. However, as many foreign scientists have been dismayed to discover, the rules are complex and capricious, demanding detailed information and documentation to accompany an 85-page application form. Furthermore, there have been cases where applicants have been shocked to receive letters from the Home Office, instructing them to make preparations to leave the country.
“This is no way to treat people who have contributed so much to the vigour of UK research and to our cultural and social life”, wrote Curry, no doubt reflecting the views of many UK academics who were overwhelmingly opposed to leaving the EU. Furthermore, he said the impression that had been created was that the UK government wanted to protect the status of UK nationals living in other EU countries before clarifying the status of EU nationals in the UK. “But to use millions of people as bargaining chips is politics of the most brutal sort.”
However, the underlying message of the Brexit referendum has not been very positive. Curry says the government needs to do something to “win back some of the goodwill squandered by the arrogant exceptionalism of leading Brexiteers”. The UK could do the “smart and decent thing” by unilaterally guaranteeing the residency of all EU nationals who have met the 5-year rule. He reckons that this would secure “a moral advantage” and could also prevent the loss of EU talent from UK universities and research institutes. “Given the soured political and social atmosphere – sensed by every single one of my European colleagues – and the impending loss of access to EU funding mechanisms, the best EU researchers are likely to be head-hunted by ambitious institutions on the continent. The price of tempting them away has fallen more precipitously than the pound.”
Meanwhile, a report from the Royal Society soon revealed just how financially dependent UK research has become on EU funding (see Part 10).