On 24th June 2016, the British public voted to leave the EU in a long-awaited referendum on the continuation of the country’s membership. Even though the result of the vote was announced several months ago, there is still a huge amount of uncertainty surrounding the decision and what it may entail for the UK. The UK is a world leader in research and has many world class universities, so it is important that Brexit does not impede their success.
One of the most often discussed topics during the build up to the referendum was the control of migration into the UK which many saw as lacking due to the EU’s policy of freedom of movement. This has led to an unfortunate situation where many foreign- born citizens living in the UK no longer feel welcome or wish to leave, and many who intended to enter the UK are now seeking different options. This could potentially be an issue for many UK universities and research institutes who depend upon large numbers of international students and researchers, leading to a possible ‘brain drain’ as high quality researchers no longer wish to work in the UK1.
Many leaders who advocated the exit of the UK from the EU however, still want to encourage migrants who will be beneficial to the UK to consider life here2 with a system which will allow highly qualified migrants into the country3. Many campaigners for the Vote Leave group had suggested a points- based system similar to that employed by Australian authorities, but the Prime Minister has announced she intends to introduce a system that allows greater control over who enters the country4. Optimistically, this could lead to a system that prioritises highly skilled migrants and helps ensure there is still a ready supply of highly educated people entering the UK eager to contribute to research and students wishing to study at British universities, although it remains to be seen if and how this may be implemented.
Currently, UK research groups and projects are heavily involved in many collaborative EU initiatives including the Horizon 2020 fund – a program put in place to fund research and development projects across the EU with €80 Billion available for projects over 7 years from 2014 until 20205. Although overall, the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget, British research projects receive more than the country supplies to European research initiatives – the Office of National Statistics has estimated that between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed €5.4 billion to EU research funds whilst British projects received an estimated €8.8 billion6. It is clear then that membership of the EU, and thereby access to these sources of funding, contributes a great deal to UK research and Brexit could have a large negative impact upon current and future research opportunities.
On the morning of 21st November, the Prime Minister unveiled her plans for an annual £2 billion fund and tax incentives for research and development projects across the UK7; a promising sign for the future of research. This not only surpasses the €8.8 billion obtained by groups from the EU over 6 years, it is also an indication that the government has the intention of helping British research survive in a post- Brexit world and may be convinced to ensure scientific interests in Europe are secured.
Another benefit of being part of European collaborative efforts is access to a greater number of researchers across many institutes who are likely to be able to offer a wider variety of data and different insights. There are also several collaborative research facilities which European researchers have access to, either as part of internal EU initiatives or international collaborations, for example the ITER project in Southern France which aims to aid in the development of nuclear fusion8. Without the benefit of EU membership, the UK would no longer be a participant of these collaborations and would either need to re-join as an independent partner, where it would likely have less input on policy, or develop its own research agreements with partners which would take time to put in place. Not only this, but by not being a member state of the EU, the UK would be ineligible to host facilities for many collaborative European efforts, leading to a possible reduction in the quality of future British facilities and a loss of current facilities. Indeed, the headquarters of the European Medicines Agency, which is currently based in London, is expected to be relocated to another European city in the wake of Brexit9.
A useful strategy could involve the UK becoming more independent in terms of research and increasing its capacity for domestic projects. Although entirely domesticated research projects have a smaller impact, there could be many opportunities to expand the UK’s current research impact outside of the EU. For instance, the EU’s regulations regarding clinical trials have often been criticised for being too bureaucratic and holding back viable trials, and were recently overhauled in 2014, meaning many pharmaceutical businesses may still be apprehensive over the new guidelines10 and so could welcome the prospect of a post- Brexit Britain with less restrictive laws. The UK already has an excellent track record of advancements made in biomedical and pharmaceutical fields and so this is likely to be an important area of development in the future.
On 6th November, the British high court ruled that the government cannot trigger Article 50, the clause a government must invoke in order to exit the EU, without a vote in Parliament to the dismay of many pioneers of Brexit. Since the ruling, the Prime Minister has expressed her intent to contest the decision by appealing to the Supreme Court. These proceedings are likely to take a long time to carry out and increase the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and its terms, meaning many research opportunities may be missed as potential partners look to other, more grounded countries.
It has also been announced that the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments may also intervene in the Brexit court case and the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made plans to ensure Brexit can be slowed or even reversed once negotiations have been initiated11. Again, this will likely increase the feeling of unease many feel towards the proceedings but could also lead to a better deal for many sectors of the UK- including research establishments. Given the additional time and political power this could introduce, it may be possible to convince the government to make ensuring the UK still has an important role in European research a priority in its Brexit negotiations to minimise any negative impacts.
The next few years will undoubtedly be filled with uncertainty as the UK traverses the difficult waters of leaving the EU and it is unclear how this may affect the UK’s long term research capabilities. Although there are many drawbacks of Brexit from the perspective of research, there may also be many opportunities which could arise from the independence of the UK. With today’s announcement that the government is interested in funding scientific research, perhaps the UK’s future outside of the EU may not be as bleak as it may appear. Only time can tell.