The United Kingdom ought to leave the European Union in March 2019 -- but even though the deadline is just three months from now, the UK government has failed to propose graceful terms for its exit. As a no-deal split seems more and more probable, many researchers working in Britain are worried over the future of their careers.
Anxiety in British research
There are many reasons why researchers in the UK should feel anxious. About one-sixth of British university staff are expats from the EU, many of whom have hurried to secure expensive residency permits in order to secure their jobs.
Politicians, in turn, have promised that non-UK academics from the EU shouldn't be worried, as their right to work and claims to health benefits will continue unabated, but without official documents and policy such claims carry little weight at the moment. What's more, according to a recent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, European workers should be subjected to the same visa requirements as other migrants. Britain will certainly offer some preferential treatment for certain EU citizens and professionals, but the whole affair is murky absent any conclusive trade negotiations.
UK nationals also have their own reasons to be worried, with many applying for European citizenships in their own turn.
“The British scientists I talk to here have all either taken on European nationalities or are thinking of doing it if they can — because no one really knows what the consequences of Brexit will be,” Edith Heard, who directs the genetics and developmental biology department at the Curie Institute in Paris and is a fellow of London’s Royal Society, told Nature.
“I’ve noticed that since the vote, UK scientists can’t play as prominent a role in European projects. They can be part of them, but have drawn back from leadership roles because of the risk that proposals could be compromised in the future, when it’s not clear what’s going to happen,” she says. “That’s stunting science.”
Secondly, according to an analysis by campaign group Scientists for EU, the UK would no longer be eligible for three of the EU's major funding programmes. These include grants issued by the European Research Council (ERC), which have so far been worth a total of €1.29bn for the UK. The other two programs are Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions (€0.7bn for British researchers) and the SME instrument grants, which are designed to encourage small innovative businesses and which funneled €140m to the UK.
UK scientists have been very successful at winning European research grants. For instance, the EU's Horizon 2020 funding programme funneled more than €4.6 billion to the country's research since 2014. Britain could still access these funds even if it's no longer an EU member, if the government manages to continue the relationship. Israel, for instance, receives funds from Horizon 2020. However, British scientists will likely not be able to receive nearly as much funding as before.
In an editorial for The Guardian, Galsworthy explained that while the UK would still have access to Horizon 2020 as a “third country”, Brexit will cost UK research €577.35m a year in lost opportunity to access these high-value grants.
"The UK has coordinated more Horizon 2020 projects than any other country to date, and has a hard-earned reputation for effective project leadership. In a no-deal Brexit, this leadership role is stone cold dead. That prospect is impacting projects being prepared right now," Galsworthy wrote.
British government officials have repeatedly stressed that bids for EU funding will be underwritten up to 2020. But, political statements aside, it's really anyone's guess what happens next -- and this uncertainty is already having a great impact. Universities around the country have seen a significant drop in the number of student applications from the EU, from medical assistant schools to architecture schools. The number of fellowship applications from EU researchers to the UK has also dropped.