Will Brexit really lead to a tidal wave of disaster for UK science?

It’s finally been decided. After months and months of political campaigning, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. Much of the campaigning has been focused on immigration and the economy, but how does the ‘Brexit’ vote affect UK science. With 90% of UK scientists wanting to remain within the EU, will Brexit be a catastrophe for British science or will it actually lead to some unexpected benefits.

The UK is, undoubtedly, a global leader in scientific research. The future of millions of people relies on the success or failure of the scientific economy in the UK. Many argue that UK science is dependent on the nation remaining within the EU. After the Brexit vote and once Article 50 has been triggered, three separate scenarios can take place. One where UK science faces several problems and it’s reputation as a world leading innovator crumbles. One where UK science actually benefits from withdrawing the EU and the last where nothing really changes.

Scenario 1 – The Worst ‘Tidal Wave’ Outcome

Will the Leave vote cause a catastrophic tidal wave for UK science?

Will the Leave vote cause a catastrophic tidal wave for UK science?A recent report written by Digital Science has suggested that scientific research in the UK was reliant on EU funding to a “concerning level”. This is backed up by the claim that the EU gives the UK approximately £1 billion a year, and from between 2007 and 2013, the UK has received €8.8 billion from the EU. Importantly, the UK has only contributed €5.4 billion to the EU, so has received an extra €3.4 billion in funding from being a member of the EU. Hence, EU funding has been fundamental to UK innovation. Many scientists and politicians believe that this funding will disappear after a Leave vote was successful.


Science minister, Jo Johnson, has already said that there is no guarantee that a government that allows a Brexit would be able to provide extra funding for any deficiency in funding if capital from the EU dropped. People are extremely worried that a collapse in EU funding after Brexit will be catastrophic for UK research. This is not helped by claims that assertions from the UK Treasury are unsophisticated and docile given that several governments have allowed UK research to be below the EU average as a proportion of the nation’s GDP. Basically, the UK should be investing more into research based on it’s GDP.

A separate but important issue across the whole referendum campaign has been the free movement of individuals, which obviously includes scientists. If the Brexit results in this policy being revoked, then it could result in an isolation of British science. Given that 16% of university researchers and 5% of students are from other EU countries, a movement to block their entry into the UK would be disastrously for research, since the country isn’t receiving the bright and intelligent minds of non-UK individuals. Science has always been about collaboration, both domestically and internationally, so a cause of scientific isolationism would be horrifying on a global scale, since a huge chuck of the world’s research is from the UK. A projective result of scientific isolation would be that many ground-breaking discoveries may be occur since collaborative research projects not going ahead.

The general mood of Brexit could also lead to negative consequences. Currently, racial abuse has been on the rise, would may lead some non-UK individuals questioning whether to remain living in the UK. A brain drain of intelligent scientists would be as equally devastating to not allowing individual’s to enter the UK in the first place. In order to avoid this potential isolation, efforts need to be made to keep free movement of individuals across European borders and a general mood of equality need to be achieved.

Scenario 2 – Would anything actually change?

Is science really influenced by EU membership?

Although many scientists are apprehensive about the results of Brexit, many others claim that nothing will really change. It is important to note that seven of the top nine universities in Europe are all in the UK, and out of the top twenty universities in the world, the four EU universities which make the list are all British (as of the Times Higher Education rankings for 2015/16). Also, considering all the EU members, the UK has more Nobel laureates than any other member nation. It would be foolish to think that universities in the EU would boycott collaborating and studying at British universities and with British scientists, since they are considered to be amongst the best in the world. Furthermore, before the EU was founded, scientific cooperation between European nations still existed. It would be impossible for a unite scientific network to just disintegrate overnight because of a Brexit.

It is believed that the UK would still excel in science after the Leave vote. Chris Leigh has stated that, “our scientific and academic base gains no more than a marginal benefit from political membership of the EU”. Although EU funding has greatly benefited the UK, only 3% of the EU’s research funding goes towards UK research and development. With this in mind, Britain produced 15% of the most citied research papers globally. Hence, being part of a political union is not necessarily essential for UK science to be successful.

It is important to consider that for this scenario to be achieved, the UK would need to gain more funds for science from somewhere, in order to counteract the €3.4 billion that could be lost from scenario 1. This money could come from a surplus of assets that the UK government has after a Brexit, which would have normally been sent to the EU hoping that the UK does not lose too much money because of a Leave vote. The UK could also apply for extra funding from non-EU partners, given the correct circumstances.

Scenario 3 – Could UK science benefit from a Brexit?

Can the UK benefit from non-EU membership just as the Norwegians have?

The EU has not always been a good thing for British science. In 2001, the EU passed a policy which resulted in the UK’s global share of clinical trials decreasing significantly. This is clearly a negative effect of being a member of the EU, as trials which could have led to significant discoveries in the UK were forbidden. Additionally, non-EU members are still able to apply for EU funding. Some countries (Iceland, Norway and Israel) that are not in the EU actually receive more EU funding than the UK per million people. Iceland receives €27 million, Norway gets €20 million, Israel gets €14 million, whereas the UK receives €12 million per million people. Hence, the UK could become better off in terms of receiving more EU funding per capita following the Leave vote. The UK could still feel the benefits of EU funding in this scenario, but would also have extra funding by not contributing as much to the EU research fund.

Iceland and Norway, non-EU members, are still members of the Horizon 2020 programme. This programme coordinates national research policies and combines funding to avoid a repetition of research in some areas. It is this Horizon 2020 programme that is providing a significant chunk of scientific funding in Europe. In my opinion, the UK would need to gain access to Horizon 2020 in order to continue significant research after the Leave vote. Negotiations into this would be tricky but other non-EU nations have achieved this, such as Switzerland. However, in order for Switzerland to achieve funding it had to contribute to Horizon 2020 based on its GDP and population.  Switzerland refused to increase its mass migration number which is one of the reasons why it has no role in developing research topics for European scientists. Therefore, for the UK to gain the best possible outcome, it still needs to send assets to the EU and needs to maintain free movement, or we may have little to no say in the development of research projects.

Would do you think will happen to UK science after the Leave vote? Do you think any of the above scenarios will occur or is there be a different one to consider? Personally, if the UK decides to restrict free movement across European borders, then a combination of scenario 1 and 2 will occur, as a brain drain or a refusal to enter is likely to occur but the outcome of whether the UK receives more, less or the same amount of funding is a very complicated matter.








Image source – http://www.istockphoto.com/gb/photos/science%20and%20europe?facets=%7B%2234%22%3A%5B%221%22%2C%227%22%5D%2C%2235%22%3A%5B%22science%20and%20europe%22%5D%7D


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