What does Brexit mean for scientists working in the UK and EU?
After four long, uncertain years of negotiation and an eleventh-hour trade deal, the United Kingdom finally left the European Union at 11pm on 31 December 2020.
With ‘freedom of movement’ between the UK and EU coming to an abrupt end, scientists in both geographies woke up on 1 January to a new reality.
In this post-Brexit world, people are no longer free to move unrestricted between the two regions to live and work (though short trips will remain visa-free).
But what about the wider repercussions of Britain’s EU withdrawal for research funding and the livelihoods of scientists and researchers across the continent? In this article, we’ll investigate Brexit’s immediate impact on science and examine what this means for the very people on whom the sector depends.
Brexit’s impact on science
Despite legitimate fears of a no-deal Brexit, the last-minute trade deal that was finally agreed on 24 December came as some relief to scientists and researchers across Britain and the EU.
According to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the deal represents “certainty for our scientists, who will be able to continue to work together on great collective projects”.
One such project that UK researchers will take part in is the EU’s €85bn (£75.6bn) flagship research programme, Horizon Europe — the largest scientific research initiative of its kind in the world. Under the withdrawal agreement, Britain will not be a full member of Horizon Europe but will participate as an associate member.
Like the Horizon Europe initiative, the UK will also become an associate member of the Euratom nuclear research programme and remain a member of the Copernicus Earth-observation satellite programme.
However, while the UK will remain part of the European Space Agency (a non-EU body), the country will not take part in the EU-driven Galileo — a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) that the UK had previously invested £1.2bn in. Mike Galsworthy, visiting researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, calls this “a massive loss” given the UK’s investment and laments the loss of British influence.
Brexit brought further losses for science graduates looking to study abroad. The popular Erasmus+ student exchange scheme, which enabled around 35,000 British students to study in EU member states each year (with a similar number making the reverse journey), has come to an end.
The programme is being replaced by the Turing Scheme, a £100-million ($138-million) initiative that the UK government says will be more global in scope and aims to support UK students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Whether this scheme will deliver on its promises, or even be as effective as Erasmus+ remains to be seen.
The UK is also waiting for the EU to decide whether its data-protection regulations are “adequate,” providing a grace period of several weeks. If deemed as such, UK institutions will be permitted to continue freely receiving personal data — such as patient data from clinical trials — from EU countries.
In clinical trials specifically, both the UK and EU have agreed to recognise each other’s quality standards for medicines. However, UK-led trials that encompass several European countries are now required to hire an individual or organisation in the EU to act as a legal representative.
Finally, the deal includes a tariff-free trade in goods — allaying fears that high tariffs would result in a shortage of medical or laboratory supplies post-Brexit. This is good news for UK-based scientists, as it means critical lab equipment will not be subject to further bureaucratic obstacles. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage, this comes as a huge relief to many.
What does Brexit mean for scientists coming into the UK from the EU?
Attracting scientists to the UK may potentially prove a headache for British STEM employers. According to Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, “although we say we are open, it doesn’t look that way when we are separating from our closest neighbours.
Although we have already seen a downturn in the number of professionals entering the UK from the EU since the 2016 Brexit vote, the UK’s Points-Based immigration system for skilled workers (which was agreed before the trade deal) includes special provision for scientists.
Since January 1 2021, EU scientists and engineers looking to work in the UK will have their applications considered alongside applications from the rest of the world. In other words, skilled workers from the EU will no longer have preferential treatment.
EU nationals can also apply for a Global Talent visa, which offers a quicker path to permanent settlement than the skilled-worker route. To be considered for entry via this route, applicants must be endorsed by one of six bodies approved by the UK Home Office.
Scientists entering the EU from the UK
While the Brexit deal offered more clarity for EU scientists seeking work in the UK, the rules for UK scientists looking to live and work in EU member countries are more complex.
According to the Nature research journal, “freedom of movement [has been] replaced by a patchwork of national immigration schemes.” While the EU has a policy that aims to “harmonise and simplify countries’ rules for people coming to the bloc to do research and to study,” there is currently no single EU-wide visa for scientists from the UK.
In any case, UK nationals no longer have an automatic right to live or work and settle in the EU. To work in an EU member state, British scientists will have to check the individual country's immigration rules.
Further uncertainty in the long term
The December 24th trade deal crystallised laws around immigration, employment, research, and data sharing. However, uncertainty around the long-term effects of Brexit on UK science will likely persist for years to come.
Major Brexit disruption has already shaken up UK science. According to Royal Society data, in the years between the Brexit vote and Britain’s eventual withdrawal from the European Union, the UK’s annual share of EU research funding fell by half a billion euros. In the same period, UK applications to Horizon 2020 dropped by almost 40%, and 35% fewer scientists came to the UK through cross-border schemes.
The Brexit trade deal does represent hope, however. With continued access to European research funds and associate membership of various EU-led research programmes, UK scientists still have the opportunity to innovate and collaborate with their EU counterparts.
That said, the UK science sector will need to work closely with the British government to ensure that the country continues to attract highly-skilled science talent from across the globe and, in the words of the Royal Society, “maintains regulation that supports access to new medicines, technologies and constructive collaborations.”
In the past year, collaboration across the science community has been both productive and plain to see. And though new restrictions may, on the surface, put in place barriers to frictionless collaboration, ultimately, science always has and always will be a cross-border, cross-functional, collaborative endeavour.