Brexit is already hitting Britain in the brains

The scary science of continental drift
February 14, 2017

Imagine you were a member of a club where for every pound you put in, you got £1.24 back; a club that allows you to work with the best talent from across a whole continent, and each year gives 15,000 of your students a life-changing experience abroad.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? That’s what the European Union looks like from the perspective of British science. It’s no wonder that on 24th June 2016 scientists were so prominent among the 16,141,241 despairing Remain voters. All sorts of questions now hang over the future of science. Worries about researchers leaving, and UK scientists being nudged out of European projects are already beginning to be borne out.

Science is not just another bleating special interest: the fate of the economy as a whole rests on it. Philip Hammond recognised this in the Autumn Statement, when he put an extra £4.7bn into scientific research in the years up to 2020-21. British science has always punched above its weight—with 0.9 per cent of the world’s population and 3.2 per cent of R&D spend, the UK produces 16 per cent of the top-notch research. Our Nobel prize tally is second only to the United States. But if a post-Brexit Britain is going to make it big on the world stage then it will need to turbo-charge this even further. Will that be possible if we are frozen out of EU science?

Money is the first concern. Last year, the UK got €1.2bn through the EU’s main science programme—that’s 16 per cent of the total, more than the 13 per cent net-of-rebate contribution that we pay into the overall EU budget. Another lost funding source will be the portion of structural investment funds that goes on research and innovation—€1.6bn between 2014 and 2020. Brexiteers respond that since this was (mostly) our money anyway, leaving will simply free us up to spend it as we please. Perhaps. Scientists, however, doubt that the government will find the extra cash, £500m annually by one estimate—particularly if Brexit triggers a wider economic downturn.

There’s also more than money at stake. It is not unpatriotic to say that the UK is great at science because it’s part of the most successful science hub in the world. Modern research does not rest on the brilliance of lone, home-grown geniuses but on the power of cross-border collaborations. Even with short-term government assurances about the ability to recruit top talent from overseas, the UK is looking less enticing to much of it. The Royal Society told the Science and Technology Select Committee that the 31,000 citizens from other EU states who are working in scientific research are feeling anxious and unwelcome. In a small poll of 67 post-doctoral researchers at University College London, 18 per cent said they were considering a move out of the UK after the referendum. The end of freedom of movement could impose hard barriers, compounding the psychological rift.

Beyond this looming brain drain, British scientists will lose clout if, as seems to be happening, other Europeans go cool on working with them. The select committee heard about some British researchers having to surrender their lead role on projects, and others being asked not to take part. As one researcher put it: “If you are not invited to the party you don’t even know there is a party.”

So what happens now? Ministers whisper reassurance, and vow to use the heft of UK science to leverage the best Brexit deal. But severing scientific connections with the EU would be a disaster—as the case of Switzerland shows starkly. Its own referendum in 2014 to restrict free movement led to EU retaliation in the form of curtailed access to EU research programmes. The result? Scientists from the country Einstein called home are excluded from big decisions, and no longer allowed to lead projects. That is not a future British scientists will relish.