Brexit – How Will It Impact Scientific Research?

The UK’s current membership in the EU has benefited scientific research through numerous avenues. A key factor is the links in the scientific community and openness which comes with collaboration between international labs that leads to breakthroughs in research faster. The idea behind this, is you can use research published by other research centres, collaborate research projects between facilities, linking equipment plus the minds of those that lead the relevant fields. The European Union (EU) allows free collaboration between research projects and the scientific community, including the Horizon 2020 scheme detailed below.

Currently students and researchers have the possibility to study and work abroad within the EU. This free movement allows the development of individuals, projects, and labs across Europe. It leads to more competition for university places, PhD placements and jobs. Higher skilled applicants leads to competition; competition in recruitment helps to maintain standards required for research to be conducted and accepted. Not only does the movement of students and workers lead to better science, but it also improves opportunities for students. Those looking to study abroad and work in international labs will gain valuable experience, enhancing their CVs, and leading to higher employment levels for UK graduates. These opportunities also encourage students to follow further education, PhDs and masters, leading to a more educated society.

For many projects, funding is dependent on schemes run by the EU. A current EU funding programme is known as Horizon 2020. It aims to provide financial and political backing to innovative projects across the EU with the aim to make funding more available and “remove the red tape” that was previously in place to progress important research. This enables projects to start quicker, and also create a more united community for research. When the UK leaves the EU then we will no longer have easy access to this network of information and funding.

Current projects which are funded through the EU include the TRANSEURO consortium which is looking to advance stem cell research into Parkinson’s disease; the European Prevention of Alzheimer’s disease consortium; the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Aging, the Cognitive and Aging study, the Genetic FTD initiative and the Imaging of Neuroinflammation in Neurodegenerative Diseases consortium rely on EU collaborations. These crucial projects will suffer with lower levels of funding and a lack of collaboration, and breakthroughs will take longer to reach unless funding can be found elsewhere.

If Article 50 is triggered and the UK completes the move to leave the EU, steps must be taken to ensure that science remains international for the sake of progress. The Leave campaign argued that leaving the EU will not lead to a breakdown of the scientific community currently in place, but will in fact open doors to a wider international field. It must be considered that it already was possible for these opportunities outside the EU prior to Brexit, however many projects chose collaborate in the EU. Whether negotiations will allow the UK to remain in the EU Horizon 2020 group, or give channels of communication and work for scientists remains to be seen.

The leave campaign did propose a points based immigration system which will still allow highly skilled workers such as scientific researchers to work in the UK but Brexit may also lead to labs in the UK to look further afield for research and collaborate with other projects outside Europe. This may alter the number or destination of students or researchers who choose to study/work abroad, with currently 20% of academic staff at the top universities in the UK originating from the EU (Nature 2016).

The future for science after Brexit remains uncertain. Will Brexit encourage collaborations and open wider channels of communication globally which will benefit science? The leave campaign did promise that funding for scientists and students would continue but will that promise will be held to levels equivalent to the past? Only time will tell. All we hope as scientists is that this move will not give rise to too large a challenges so that science can continue to grow, and breakthroughs be made.


Author: Rosie Porter


Nature (2016)

Neuroscience News (2016)

European Commission Horizon 2020 (2016)

Scientific American (2016)


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