UK Science Still Reeling After Brexit Vote

Well, it’s been over a week since the shocking result of the UK referendum, indicating that 52% of the British public want to leave the EU.

The news hit the UK scientific community like a ton of bricks, with Chemistry World describing the general feeling as “dismay and uncertainty”. Indeed, the result was generally not welcome in chemistry departments around the UK, which often receive a significant amount of funding from EU sources. However, the concerns span more than just funding. Dominic Tildesley, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry stated that there is now “considerable uncertainty about how an EU exit will affect access to EU funding for research, the freedom of researchers to work across the EU and the application of EU regulations across the science and technology sector.” – highlighting the various ways that the ‘Brexit’ may impact our sector.

Universities across the country have scrambled to reassure staff and students alike that their situation will not change in the near future. After all, the UK is still a member of the EU at this current time. The Russell Group of research intensive universities has also said it would be seeking assurances from the government that staff and students from Europe would be able to continue working and studying in the UK after it leaves the EU. This is a concern for many people, whose future hangs in the balance as negotiations with the EU begin. It would be a terrible shame if the extremely bright workforce we currently import from the EU is lost. I myself have worked with terrific students and post-docs from the continent, who may not have chosen to come here had the ease of movement between EU nations not been possible. Furthermore, many EU citizens are feeling less welcome in the UK, following a spate of xenophobic incidents both before and after the referendum results.

Many researchers are focusing their immediate concerns on keeping the UK in the Horizon 2020 programme – the EU’s €74.8-billion (US$82.9-billion) programme of research grants. Indeed, John Womersley, chief executive of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, says this should be the community’s top — and only — objective. Switzerland has been removed from the programme following its restrictions on the free movement of people between itself and the EU, so the UK must tread carefully to ensure this does not happen to us as well. However, this will prove extremely difficult, as immigration was used as a key factor in the Vote Leave campaign.

All in all, it’s quite a worrying time to be involved in science in the UK. The referendum result was a shock to a group of people who, as far as we all could tell, were overwhelmingly in support of remaining in the EU. All we can do is push the government to make the protection science funding and the UK’s reputation as a centre for excellent scientific research a priority, and wait with bated breath.