What Brexit means for research

And why it matters for CROs outside of the United Kingdom

By Debra Goodell

While the ramifications of the United Kingdom’s split from the European Union remain far from clear at this point, research offices in and outside of the U.K. are preparing for the new reality of research at British universities.

Though the margin of voters that chose to “Brexit” rather than “Bremain” in the E.U. at the national level was less than 4%, one group within the U.K. was overwhelmingly against the secession: researchers. The University Research Forum took a deeper look at the trouble facing researchers in the U.K. post-Brexit and what opportunities could emerge for the future of research enterprises in the U.S., Canada, and other countries.

Brexit Vote Results

Researchers voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union

Sources: Nature, The Guardian

Funding is a big concern for researchers in the U.K.

Brexit brings with it new concerns about dissolving international research teams and complications to collaborative projects. But a report in Nature published prior to the referendum cited a more familiar fear among researchers with U.K. ties: a loss of funding. The U.K. receives about €1.4 billion (about $1.6 billion) each year as a result of E.U. partnerships and direct funding to research. Many researchers worry that the United Kingdom cannot afford to lose those funds, especially not on on top of losses in domestic research budgets, which may be slashed to re-allocate support to public programs that could also lose funding.

Of polled researchers who planned to vote in the Brexit referendum, 78% felt that Brexit would harm U.K. science, versus just 9% who felt that it would be beneficial. U.K. and E.U. researchers also responded that an exit would harm science in the rest of the E.U., though less severely than in the U.K. In June, more than 100 vice-chancellors signed an open letter warning that Brexit would hurt the U.K.’s position as a global leader in science and the arts and limit opportunities for U.K. research to take part in “cutting-edge research, from medical and health care advances to new materials, products, and services.”

Vice-chancellors have also voiced concerns that U.K. researchers would lose the ability to contribute to collaborative, international grand challenges, such as climate change. And U.K.-based nonprofit groups that fund this type of research, still recovering from the 2008 recession, may not only experience funding difficulties but also limitations on the impact of their grants due to restricted resources and talent pools within U.K. research.

Pro-Brexit politicians have stated that countries outside of the E.U. can still partner with European Union countries in research projects and that the U.K. can participate in the E.U.’s Horizon 2020 Programme for Research and Innovation, but this will require the U.K. to negotiate the continued free movement of people across E.U./U.K. borders.

Related study: Strengthen your international research partnerships

Early ramifications

While the terms of Brexit still need to be negotiated, international collaborations are already being restructured. E.U. research projects have started to lose British researchers as project leaders decide that it’s too risky to wait for terms (which may take two years) that may not result in British funding. An article in the Times Higher Education recently quoted Sarah Main, director of the U.K. organization Campaign for Science and Engineering, on the ramifications of the Brexit vote for scientists:

“Science is an area where the relationship between the U.K. and the E.U. was particularly beneficial. Not least because scientists won billions of pounds of research funding for the U.K., above and beyond what we put in (€8.8B between 2007 and 2013.) In addition, free movement of people in the E.U. made it easy for scientists to travel, collaborate, and share ideas with the best in Europe and for companies and universities in the U.K. to easily access top talent from Europe.”

Other U.K. university associations, such as the Russell Group and Universities UK, also advocated against Brexit due to fears about its impact on research.

Of course, there are British researchers for whom life has not changed much with Brexit, particularly those with multi-year research grants from U.K. agencies. But for others, future research plans hang in the balance.

“We’re still in a bit of a limbo period—waiting to see how badly we’re gonna be #*!@ed over.”
-U.K. Post-Doc Scientist in Physical Chemistry

Changes for the rest of us

In addition to economic instability, some have suggested that ties between the U.S. and E.U. countries may become somewhat strained due to cultural and economic ties between the U.S. and the U.K. But despite larger economic concerns, there could be potential benefits for research in the U.S.

International research partnerships
U.K. researchers emphasize that international research collaboration is vital to the health of U.K. research. The small size of the U.K. provides universities with few options for domestic research partnerships. In previous years, U.K. scientists have often used E.U. collaboration to enhance their portfolios. Severed research ties between British and European labs may lead top researchers from the U.K. to look to the U.S. to fulfill international collaboration goals.

Further, the U.K.’s population of just under 65 million does not provide a large enough sample size to conduct large-scale clinical trials, particularly for the treatment of childhood cancers and rare diseases.

Recruiting top talent
U.K. universities also fear that Brexit will lead to a mass exodus of top graduates, researchers, and administrators to other countries. As noted in a letter of opposition to Brexit signed by 150 Royal Society fellows, talented, young researchers from other countries in the E.U. often move to the U.K. and bring funding with them. Now other E.U. countries may be poised to recruit researchers and other professionals who seek to leave the U.K.

Other E.U. countries have already begun to recruit U.K. professionals in the financial sector, and recruitment will likely occur in higher education should the terms of the Brexit negotiation further limit research and funding opportunities. The Wall Street Journal reports that corporate and financial headhunters in the U.K. predict a slowing of hiring across sectors as businesses try to determine the impact of Brexit, and our contacts report that the same has been true for headhunters of higher education administrators.

Long-term impacts

The instability of the future of U.K. research stemming from the Brexit decision will likely remain a source of anxiety within the U.K. and the E.U. and a topic of conversation across universities internationally for the next few years. The University Research Forum will be keeping an eye on this issue as events unfold to determine its effects on the research enterprise within and outside of the U.K.

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