Could the Brexit harm science in Britain?

Following the Britain's vote to leave the European Union, British scientific and research academies have joined other major industries across the United Kingdom scrambling to understand what their future may look like.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
On June 22, before Britain voted to leave the European Union, Warsaw, Poland, illuminated its Palace of Culture and Science in Union Jack colours to support of Britain staying in the EU.

In the wake of the British public's decision to exit the European Union, science and research academies there face an uncertain and potentially damaging future, as much of their resources come from sources across the European Union.

Research projects in Britain have received about $1.3 billion in funding from the European Union, comprising about 10 percent of the total spent by government-funded research councils – a source of funding that British institutions will struggle to replace.

In an essay published July 1 in the journal Science, Graeme Reid the Chair of Science and Research Policy at University College London, describes just how closely intertwined British scientific research is with the rest of the EU.

"Right now," he writes, "over 18% of funding returned to the UK from EU resources is for R&D, making this one of the larger parts of the EU's relationship with the UK. Thus, many thousands of relationships between students, academics, and administrators bind together scientists in the UK and other European countries."

“It’s a disaster. We are so heavily embedded in Europe in terms of the funding, it’s going to be very difficult to sort out,” said Nobel Prize-winning British physicist Peter Higgs, quoted in the International Business Times, adding that it’s “not just the funding, but the way in which membership of the European Union results in the flow of people between different countries.”

The turmoil has already begun, with British research projects, now seen as financial risks, being forced to leave EU-funded projects. In one case, an EU project officer recommended dropping all UK partners because Britain’s funding could no longer be guaranteed.

While such immediate setbacks are difficult for British researchers, greater worries exists about what lies ahead. Joe Gorman, a senior scientist at Sintef, Norway’s leading research institution, told the Guardian that there will be a significant decrease in the number of invitations to join consortiums

Also, as British organizations place bids for future funding for projects, institutions may miss out on opportunities without ever knowing they existed. “If you don’t get invited to the party, you don’t even know there is a party,” said Gorman to The Guardian.

While British researchers are currently striving to remain prominent players in the world of scientific research, Gorman believes a strong, clear and immediate statement needs to come from the UK government on how Britain will contribute to future EU projects from outside of the Union itself. ““All the talk is about when negotiations will start,” said Gorman. “We don’t want that. People want to know now what is going to happen.”

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