Brexit and Science: Thoughts from an EU student

We are living in politically-charged times, with a general election on the horizon promising a choice of two very different futures. As a Belgian national who is not able to vote in this country, the UK elections were never my place and this never particularly concerned me. After all, how bad could the results ever be, really? It is therefore only recently that I have considered the disconnect that lies in this thinking. Though I may not be able to affect the direction of politics in the UK, a Post-Brexit UK will most likely have an effect on me. As an undergraduate student who still has tender hopes and dreams of starting a career in scientific research, perhaps it was time that I answer the burning question that I have been hiding at the back of my mind; what will the future of scientific research look like after Brexit?

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There are three crucial facts that need to be understood in order to grasp why the European Union has been so relevant to research in the UK so far:

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  1. Horizon 2020

Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme, with nearly 80 billion euros of funding available to EU members between 2014 and 2020. Within the first year of its creation, 3, 236 grant agreements were signed awarding 5.5 billion euros in EU contributions out of the eligible costs of 6.5 billion. This funding has paved the way for groundbreaking research, with large-scale initiatives such as  EVIDENT,  the project that provided a research platform into the diagnostics and treatment of Ebola Virus Disease,  made possible through contributions from Horizon 2020. There is no assurance that the UK would have access to these funds, nor would be allowed membership to various other European science programmes, should they no longer be part of the European Union.

That being said, the EU has in fact allowed non-EU countries to take part in the the Horizon 2020 initiative (Switzerland, Israel, Tunisia and Ukraine among some of them). It can therefore be argued that if the UK can negotiate a free-trade agreement without accepting the free-movement of people (as is the case for 10 non-EU member states linked to the programme) then it can still benefit from involvement in Horizon 2020 without compromising many of the key elements Britain hopes to achieve through Brexit.

Furthermore, it has often been argued that any investment the UK has made into the EU in the past will be redirected to benefit the country. We can therefore hope that science will be a conscious priority in the revision of this budget. Recent headlines have encouraged that this is in fact the direction in which the government seems to be heading, after the Prime Minister has pledged to invest £2 billion a year into scientific research. This could be regarded as compensation for the loss of EU funding, in which case this headline is more a cause for relief than celebration, but it also could be regarded as positive evidence that the government recognizes the importance of maintaining scientific research.

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2. Collaborations

Many EU-based scientists have collaborated with other research-based institutions within the EU, because they see the benefits of combining international efforts. Based on a study by UNESCO, it was reported that not only do international scientific papers hold about a 40% greater research impact, but that 55.9% of the total UK research output between 2008 and 2014 were publications that involved international co-authors. UK researchers are actively seeking international collaborations, which is something made more accessible by the free movement of people and information facilitated through membership to the EU.

However, as was the case with Horizon 20/20, one could argue that being a non-EU member of state will not affect the UK’s current position and relationship with EU collaborators. In yet another relevant example, Switzerland is proof of this fact as it boasts one of the highest rates of international co-authorship in the world (68.9% between 2008 and 2014). Switzerland can champion this achievement largely because of their continued involvement in EU science programmes, once again stressing the importance of maintaining a positive relationship through Brexit negotiations to encourage a similar agreement for the UK.

More over, international collaborations are not only limited to collaborations within the EU. When referring to statistics involving the United States, the most frequent second collaborators for papers where the main collaborators were American were in fact British. This not only means that leaving the EU will not close off the UK from all foreign contributors, like the idea of Brexit might provoke, but also provides an example where the UK can build a realistic research relationship with a cross-continental institutions.

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3. Life of EU citizens in the UK

Non-UK European citizens are likely to feel a lot less comfortable living in a Post-Brexit UK. Free movement with the EU currently allows the UK to effortlessly hire 2.9 million European nationals, while avoiding the bureaucratic restrictions imposed on non-EU citizens. Non-EU International students, despite accounting for 18% of the population currently in UK Higher Education, are expected to find employment within four months of completing their degree to avoid being deported. If these same conditions will be applied to EU citizens, it will significantly reduce the appeal of studying in the UK, mainly because of the associated risks.

Switzerland is not an example that plays in Britain’s favour in this case. Despite choosing not to be a part of the EU, Switzerland has adopted the general structure of the EU’s freedom of movement agreement. The case against freedom of movement has been one of the key arguments used in the UK as a justification for leaving the ER. In Switzerland, about 51% of  students enrolled in university advanced research programs are in fact international students. This has been argued as one of the leading reasons for Switzerland’s trend as a high-achieving research producer.

This point extends further than bureaucratic formalities, as it concerns the bigger picture; was Brexit the result of a new wave of xenophobia? Even if this is not strictly true, it is certainly on the minds of many EU citizens and begs us all to ask ourselves the question; are EU citizens welcome here any more?

Despite these figures, I can say that the most important message I seem to have registered from this is that it is not guaranteed doom and despair from now on. Yes, it is clear that the EU has contributed greatly to the advancement of science and research in the UK, and it is a pity to see these contributions be disregarded in the name of UK sovereignty. However, the UK still has a shot at negotiating membership to EU science programmes, if it is willing to contribute and continue to collaborate with EU member states. For this to happen, the UK must maintain a good relationship with Europe and the remaining member states, and encourage EU students and scientists to pursue their research in the UK. For this to happen effectively, the UK needs to guarantee that harsh visa restrictions will not be put in place for EU students and scientists. These conditions might sound unrealistic to some; perhaps because you believe the UK should not have to agree to these standards, or perhaps because you don’t trust that it will. I do however believe that the discussion needs to continue, and that all of the facts should be made clear. Ultimately, EU member state or not, I believe that it is important for the UK to continue to prioritise the advancement of science.

Author Sarah Derveeuw

I am a research placement student currently completing an undergraduate degree in Clinical Psychology

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