by Michael Foley
figures by Abagail Burrus

When asked to describe the roles of a scientist, most people probably wouldn’t list ‘applying for grants’ or ‘travel’ very highly. However, modern science relies on significant efforts from researchers to obtain much of their own funding and build their own international networks. In the UK, equipment, travel, funds for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and other costs associated with research have driven the estimated average annual research expenditures from competitive grants for a research lab to over 70,000 USD (Figure 1). Much of the success of these labs relies on the work being distributed internationally: over half of the UK’s research output in 2015 was the result of international collaborations. With Brexit looming and future financial and political relationships between the UK and the EU remaining unclear, it is more important than ever to investigate the impacts of Brexit on science in the UK. Given that the UK produces 15% of the most highly cited scientific papers in the world–despite having less than 1% of the world’s population–impacts on UK science will reverberate globally.

Figure 1: The cost of science. Research requires a number of different costs, and frequently these are covered through competitive grants like the funding provided by the EU. Reduced research funding means that researchers will have to cut back in one or more of these areas.

The two-year countdown to Brexit began when former Prime Minister Theresa May officially began the withdrawal process on March 29, 2017. As the UK Parliament has still failed to ratify the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the EU, the process has reached a political impasse, and an extension until October 31, 2019, has been approved. Given this stalemate, newly appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson has signaled that he is willing to remove the UK from the EU by the new deadline, even if no withdrawal agreement is in place. With limited time to negotiate a new deal, this means that science funding in the UK will likely face a no-deal scenario or, if the political impasse is somehow broken, terms similar to those outlined in May’s withdrawal agreement. Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that scientific research will be impacted.

Funding/Supplies 

For the past six years, the EU has primarily been distributing scientific research grants through a single major funding package worth 90 billion USD: Horizon 2020. To date, the UK has received nearly 6.2 billion USD from this funding package. This figure is comparable to the total annual research budget of the National Science Foundation in the US, which accounts for roughly a fourth of all federal funding to academic institutions for basic research. With Horizon 2020 set to run through 2020, Brexit places at risk over 1 billion USD of funding that the UK would be expected to gain through the remainder of the package, approximately 10% of the UK’s total annual research budget. 

If Brexit occurs under a withdrawal agreement, the UK will remain a full member of the Horizon 2020 initiative until its completion in 2020. After this, however, it is unclear whether or not the UK would be allowed to participate in Horizon Europe, the next major EU funding package, worth 110 billion USD from 2021-2027.

If Brexit occurs without a deal, three types of grants in Horizon 2020–European Research Council (ERC) Grants, Marie Skłowodska-Curie Actions (MSCA), and Small- and Medium-Enterprise (SME) Instrument Grants–would become inaccessible to UK applicants after Brexit. The UK government has pledged to underwrite any successful applications for these funds made before Brexit occurs for the duration of the project, so projects that began before Brexit could still continue. Even with these guarantees, the loss of ERC, MSCA, and SME grants could still constitute a nearly 10% budget cut to UK science (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Breakdown of funding sources for research in the UK. EU funding makes up roughly 10% of the annual research budget. Higher Education Funding Councils specifically fund research in universities, and Research Councils fund excellent research in both academia and industry.

Given that the estimated annual budget of a UK researcher is 70,000 USD, this money could theoretically fund 14,000 researchers. For reference, the total workforce of NASA–scientists, engineers, lawyers, administrative assistants, teachers, etc.–is around 17,000 people. Furthermore, there are many cases in which UK scientists lead consortia of other UK and EU researchers. As such, they assume the responsibility for leading the grant proposals and distributing any awarded funding to the appropriate members. The UK underwrite guarantee would not cover these situations, potentially complicating the ability of UK scientists to lead research teams and resulting in a negative impact on collaboration between UK and EU scientists for at least the rest of Horizon 2020.

Students

In addition to funding concerns, Brexit also raises questions about the status of students in the EU and in the UK. For example, a significant portion of the undergraduate and postgraduate population of the UK comes from EU member states. At the postgraduate level, this fraction is roughly 15%. Right now, students from the EU at UK universities pay the same tuition and fees as UK students, substantially less than what is paid by other (non-EU) international students at UK universities. This payment structure is guaranteed to continue through the 2020-2021 academic year, but it is unlikely to continue after that with or without a withdrawal agreement. This means that EU students will likely see substantial increases in tuition and costs after the 2020-2021 academic year, potentially leading to fewer applications from EU citizens. Furthermore, the lack of EU funding could restrict the number of postgraduate students that can be accepted by EU universities. As postgraduate students are responsible for executing a substantial amount of the research programs in the natural sciences, a reduced number of postgraduate students could significantly the hinder scientific output of the UK.

Faculty/Long-term Researchers

While Brexit results in uncertainty for students, perhaps the greatest impacts of the withdrawal will fall upon EU researchers seeking long-term employment in the UK. With or without a withdrawal agreement, the government has stated that EU citizens who have already lived in the UK for 5 years are eligible to apply for ‘settled’ status, allowing them to live and work in the UK indefinitely. Those who have been in the UK for fewer than 5 years can apply for ‘pre-settled’ status, allowing them to live and work in the UK for another 5 years. After this, the legal status of EU citizens in the UK with ‘pre-settled’ credentials becomes unclear. However, Boris Johnson has recently proposed expanding the “tier one” visa program for skilled scientists. If formalized and approved, this could potentially offer a route to settled status for more scientists from outside the UK. 

Short-term mobility may also be impacted by Brexit. The EU has promised visa-free travel (stays of 90 days or less) to UK citizens so long as the UK promises the same to EU citizens, and the UK has signaled that it intends to do so. Yet, travel longer than this may become more difficult after Brexit, limiting the opportunities for researchers to participate in extended exchange programs between UK and EU research bodies. For example, RISE (Research and Innovation Staff Exchanges) grants allow individual researchers or a research group to work abroad in or outside Europe for up to a year. Within a scientific discipline, research institutes across the globe attempt to carve out unique areas of expertise. Consequently, researchers benefit from traveling and working in different areas of the world that possess experts on whatever topic they are studying. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, this funding opportunity will become unavailable to UK citizens regardless of the visa situation. These losses could harm the careers of researchers, especially early-career scientists trying to build a strong network of international collaborators.

Brexit will impact UK and global science in a major way. With or without a withdrawal agreement, funding, opportunities for extended exchange, and long-term career opportunities in the UK for EU citizens will all be reduced. Furthermore, UK participation in future EU science funding remains uncertain. While scientific issues are not predicted to play a major role in Brexit negotiations over the coming months, Parliament will be pressed to address these issues in order to maintain the eminence of UK science moving forward.


Michael Foley is a second-year graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics working to simulate the ways in which stars interact with their environments.

Abagail Burrus is a fourth-year Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. student who studies elaiophore development.

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