Brexit. Between fatigue and oblivion.

In about a month the UK will say good-bye to the EU

When I’m not travelling I pretty much wake up with Radio 4 every day. But for a long time now I have fallen into the habit of immediately turning my radio alarm off to avoid the obligatory grave voice that will tell me how utterly disastrous the Brexit negotiations are progressing. Or rather not progressing. What is progressing well, no less, is the turn to inflammatory, anxious or self-deprecating language in UK news reporting, now that we are close to the March 29th deadline with seemingly no solutions. Or at least none the public would know about. Any governmental efforts to get the situation under control (take back control?) seem to disperse in a neverending tug-of-war with no outcome.

Whereas my best efforts to ignore the news have obviously failed, other people around me seem to do better. I recently had a conversation with someone who voted Leave and happily assured me that it would all be fine and life would continue after a no deal scenario without the hint of a change. Perhaps he has access to better newsshows than I do, which keep him optimistic about the future he has chosen for his country. More likely, he might have done a similar amount of research about the consequences of his choices compared to when he voted in the referendum: none.

It doesn’t take much brainstorming and many things come to mind that definitely have changed already. Despite a seemingly paralysed local government, the remaining European countries and resident businesses have of course already responded to the looming Brexit, have made their calculations and preparations. No-one is leaving anything to chance.

Back in the run-up to the referendum, I blogged about the influence of the EU on UK science and listed a few points that I thought most relevant. Looking back now, I believe it might be a good time to re-assess the situation with a specific focus on the scientific landscape. What have we already lost, even though we are yet a member of the EU?

Have important agencies responded?

I previously wrote about the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which approves medicines for all EU countries and is the equivalent of the FDA in the States. At the time of my post the EMA headquarter was based in London, but in the meantime the agency has taken measures and relocated to Amsterdam to avoid an inadvertent exit from the EU. The general regulatory implications of a Brexit, in particular in a no deal scenario, could be severe and given the current lack of clarity some pharma businesses have already opened new facilities outside of the UK with view on moving their headquarters back into the EU should they be forced to leave it.

What about research funding?

More concerning for scientists in the UK is the question whether they will still be eligible for EU research funding in case of a no-deal Brexit. Again, no-one is able to give a clear answer to this yet. Until March 29th, eligibility of UK researchers and businesses to participate in Horizon 2020, the main EU funding programme, remains unchained. For the time after, and if there is no deal, scientists won’t be able to access EU funds. But the UK government has guaranteed to cover any bids on EU projects that have been submitted before Brexit until 2020. There are exceptions: UK-led consortia, in which British scientistis would have to distribute the funds, cannot be funded. In addition, several important grants, such as the ERC and Marie Curie grants, are not included in Horizon 2020 calls for third countries, which would be the formal state of the UK then.

In summary, it is not yet clear whether all ongoing and future research projects will receive funding or whether there will be substantial cuts. Most likely, the already time-consuming and complex process of applying for research funding will become an even more obstacle-ridden endeavour. In the long run, it is also expected that the UK will have to contribute significantly more towards R&D and strategy to keep international collaborations ongoing or might otherwise risk its status at the forefront of global research.

Has the situation changed for scientists?

According to surveys conducted by the science journal Nature, the years after the referendum have taken a toll on UK researchers. They are now less likely to find collaborators on projects that involve other partners in the EU, as consortia and scientists deem the uncertainty of the current situation as too risky and prefer to team up with alternative European institutes instead. There are signs that the flow of research money from EU research funds as well as Horizon 2020 projects into the UK is declining.

Hiring the best scientific talent from the mainland into the UK has become more challenging as the right to live and work in the UK can no longer be guaranteed. On top of this concerns about ongoing funding, the eligibility for settled status and an overall feeling of frustration weigh heavy on the researcher’s minds.

Has the situation changed for students?

Young talent is also discouraged to turn to the UK for study visits, as part of the international Erasmus student exchange programme, funded by the EU. Even though the UK government has guaranteed uninterrupted funding for all exchanges that are already approved, the rest of the document is strikingly vague about the overall future of the programme. This ongoing uncertainty has led some countries, such as Norway, to urge their students to avoid the UK. For postgraduate courses, such as PhD programmes, the Russell Group universities have reported a 9% fall in enrollment in 2017-18.

Other European countries are likely to benefit from the UK’s subdued role. Germany is already the main recipient of EU research funding and chosen as partner most frequently among international consortia. In a report last year it also emerged as the potential overall ‘winner’ from Brexit, in terms of reallocation of funds and talent, as it might be able to recruit large populations of European academics, who might have otherwise preferred the UK

After March 29th

I believe the above clearly outlines the profound consequences the triggering of Article 50 has had on the scientific landscape in the UK. There is no denying that the country is in a different position than it was three years ago. I remain hopeful that some of the damage can be undone if Brexit, or at least a no deal scenario, can be prevented in time. But the situation seems as opaque and stalled as two years ago and it is impossible to make predictions. In the meantime, nonetheless, I can point my Brexiteer acquaintances to this article for further information.

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