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Why optimism is in short supply following Theresa May’s Brexit speech

A Portuguese researcher who has worked in the UK for more than 15 years gives her reaction to the prime minister’s plan for a clean break from the EU

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British Prime Minister Theresa May's speech on her government's plan for Brexit has left me little room for optimism.

For a start, the decision to abandon the single market and the customs union is cause for a lot of concern. There are potentially serious economic implications and uncertainty over what rules will govern trade.

Research is likely to be impacted too, with further increases in the price of equipment and consumables beyond what we are already experiencing from a devalued pound, and possible difficulties in securing the best providers.

The question of whether scientists in the UK will be eligible to apply for EU research funds in the future is also a cause for concern, despite the apparent signal from May that she would be willing to pay into specific European R&D programmes to keep UK access open.

However, as May clearly set out strict control of immigration and the end of freedom of movement between EU and UK as her key priorities, negotiating access - even with contributions - may prove tricky and unrealistic.

Switzerland's tangle with the EU after the country voted in favour of immigration control is the best recent example of the difficulties the UK faces.

Finally, the position of EU nationals currently working and living in the UK continues to be used as a bargaining chip, despite the apparent good will from May, who stated in her speech that she wanted a deal on reciprocal rights so that non-British EU nationals can remain in the UK and British nationals can remain in EU-27 countries.

Unease

However, as yet there is no such agreement and recently, there have even been worrying rumours that if no deal is reached, aggressive measures such as bank account closure and employment termination could be enforced on current EU migrants.

Significantly, government rules, forms and deadlines for residency permits seem to be changing regularly, making all those applying uneasy, worried and uncertain of how to proceed to guarantee rights they thought, until very recently, were not under threat.

As an EU national who has made a career in research in the UK, all these issues cause concern and worry for the future of my research, the staff in my group, (some of whom are also from mainland Europe), my career and my ability to continue making a contribution to science and education in the UK.

Optimism is, therefore, the last word on my mind after May’s speech. On the contrary, the lack of details, of realistic, concrete plans, and the political choices presented, reinforces my concern and pessimism about what this process will bring.

Paula Salgado is a lecturer in macromolecular crystallography at Newcastle University’s Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences

* This article was amended on February 2. The original version stated that all non-EU countries except Israel had to adhere to freedom of movement if they wanted access to EU research funds. This is incorrect - many countries do have access to EU research funding without applying the freedom of movement principle - and reference to it has been removed. 

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Related subjects: Brexit

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