Ever since the Brexit referendum was held in 2016, a broad consensus has existed among researchers in the United Kingdom that the best thing would be to stay in the EU. But this will now not happen.
“It feels sad. At the same time, we must move on and decide how the future collaboration with the EU should work,” says Vivienne Stern, head of Universities UK International, an organisation representing British higher education institutions internationally.
Vivienne Stern describes the Brexit process as a rollercoaster, with the threat of a cliff-edge Brexit as the most terrifying of all loops. On 31 January, the United Kingdom formally left the EU. The country will however continue to be covered by the EU’s rules during a transition period.
What the future research collaboration between the United Kingdom and the EU countries will be like will be determined by the association agreement between the two parties. According to Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, the agreement will be in place by the end of 2020.
Reduced EU support
An analysis by the British Royal Society shows that Brexit has already impacted on the conditions for research in the United Kingdom. For example, the annual EU support for British researchers has reduced by almost one third since 2015.
At the same time, the number of international researchers applying to work in the United Kingdom is falling. The number of researchers arriving via the Marie Curie exchange programme has fallen by 35 per cent since 2015.
“This study confirms what we previously warned about,” says Venki Ramakrishnan, chair of the Royal Society.
He is an Indian-US physicist and biochemist, working at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. In 2009, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
According to the Royal Society analysis, the reason why EU support for British researchers has fallen is that researchers in other EU countries are unsure whether they can apply for EU funding together with Brits. There are several reasons why fewer international researchers are choosing to come to the United Kingdom
“I would say that the perception of the United Kingdom right now is that it is no longer as friendly and open, due to the politics surrounding Brexit and the migration issues. That is one of the reasons why fewer people are applying.” “The other reason is the uncertainty surrounding the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
Decisions made in the next few weeks and months will have a crucial impact on whether the number of foreign researchers coming to the United Kingdom will continue to fall, or start rising again,” says Venki Ramakrishnan.
“We have received signals from the politicians that they want a visa system that makes it easy for researchers to come here with their families. That might reduce the damage.”
A question of quality
Making it easy for foreign researchers to come to the United Kingdom is an important issue for maintaining the quality of British research according to Venki Ramakrishnan. He also mentions research funding as a crucial factor. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has promised a “colossal” investment in science, and has said that he wants to double the support for research up until 2024.
An increase in the national funding is important to fill the gap that will arise if the opportunity to apply for EU funding disappears, says Venki Ramakrishnan, who still hopes however that the United Kingdom will remain within the EU’s research collaboration despite the country leaving the union.
“What we want is continued close collaboration. We want to be part of Horizon Europe.
If the UK instead leaves the research collaboration, our opportunities for international collaboration between researchers will reduce,” says Venki Ramakrishnan. He mentions resource-intensive studies of gravitational waves and black holes as examples of projects that individual countries are unable to conduct on their own.
“In some cases, large-scale collaboration means that the research is done quicker. In other cases, it is a prerequisite for the research being possible at all.”
Researchers see advantages
Vivienne Stern also emphasises the important of continued strong collaboration between researchers in the United Kingdom and the EU countries. She believes that the reason why many British researchers were against Brexit is linked to the fact that researchers often operate in international environments.
“Many British researchers have strong links to European networks, and recognise the great advantages of international cooperation.” This means taking advantage of the knowledge and technology that is needed to move forwards, irrespective of where this knowledge or technology exists.
She wants the United Kingdom to remain within the EU’s research collaboration and to join the upcoming research programme Horizon Europe. She also highlights the United Kingdom’s participation in the Erasmus student exchange programme as an important issues to be determined in the near future.
“This is a big issue for us. We will be lobbying for us to remain. Erasmus has done more than any other initiative when it comes to removing barriers between countries,” she says.
Vivienne Stern says she is keeping her hopes up about continued research collaboration through the EU, and she hopes that researchers in the EU countries will do the same:
“I want to encourage researchers to continue working with us until someone expressly says that they can’t. Please don’t stop collaborating with us!”
Vivienne Stern feels that British politicians have heard the warnings from her and other researchers about the risks of leaving the EU’s research collaboration.
“We have had the chance to explain why international collaboration in research is important, and I feel that the politicians have listened. The Secretary of State for Education has really made an effort to convey the importance of staying in the collaboration programme,” she says, but at the same time emphasises that nothing can be taken for granted.
New ways to collaborate
If it turns out that the United Kingdom is not just leaving the EU, but also the EU’s research programme, then new ways to collaborate internationally will be needed, she thinks. The uncertainties of the last few years have meant that several universities both in the United Kingdom and in other countries have begun discussing and forging such links.
“Initiatives have been taken to strengthen collaboration, irrespective of what happens politically, and this is promising. In some way, we will continue collaborating in research, and having student exchanges. I’m convinced of that,” says Vivienne Stern.