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Brexit: What does it mean for UK labs?

brexit uk science labs

Brexit: What does it mean for UK labs?

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has been the topic of intense discussion, largely focusing on issues such as immigration and the economy. But the decision could also have huge ramifications for science.

A recent survey found that 93% of research scientists and engineers thought that the EU was a ‘major benefit’ to UK research. Indeed, the EU is important for science for many reasons. Firstly, funding. The UK is one of the largest recipients of European research funding, between 2007 and 2013 receiving £8.8 billion. Despite a drop in government funding, UK universities have seen their total research income increase in the past few years. This is largely thanks to increases from the EU. In fact, UK universities currently rely on the EU for over 15% of their total research funding.

As well as the funding it provides, the EU is a vital collaborative partner for the UK – over half of the UK’s collaborative papers are with EU partners. The EU is also important for facilitating collaboration further afield, which is essential to UK science. Last year, over half of the UK’s research output was the result of an international collaboration. This is supported in part by the European Research Council, which encourages researchers from outside the EU to work in its participating countries.

Finally, EU policies shape how research is conducted in the UK, on biological standards, animal research and data protection to name just a few. If UK researchers want to continue to access EU funding, they would still have to comply with many of these regulations, which provide a common framework for the exchange of people, ideas and data.

What happens now?

Although it could be years before we actually leave the EU, the implications for UK science are already being felt. A recent survey of UK universities found cases of British academics being asked to leave EU-funded projects or step down from leadership roles because their share of funding could not be guaranteed.

The UK government has pledged to fund all projects supported by Horizon 2020 – the EU’s most recent research funding scheme – after we leave the EU. This may help to alleviate concerns in the short term, but what about the long-term vision for UK science?

Brexit means Brexit

Although some academics claim Brexit may never be implemented, Teresa May has made it very clear that she intends follow the vote. There are various possibilities for the UK once Article 50 is triggered. We could form a similar relationship with the EU to countries such as Norway and Switzerland, which have signed agreements with the EU on the funding of collaborative research projects.

Whatever happens, it is essential that science is at the forefront of Article 50 negotiations. This is a sentiment re-iterated by major scientific organisations, including the Royal Society, which issued a statement saying that “in the upcoming negotiations we must make sure that research […] is not short changed, and the Government ensures that the overall funding level of science is maintained”. Perhaps even more importantly, we must ensure that the UK continues to work on a global level – welcoming academics wherever they come from. After all, the exchange of ideas regardless of borders is the essence of good science, and a route to solving the grand challenges facing society.


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