Scientists stunned by Brexit

24 Jun 2016 | News
Vote sets UK up for two year-long negotiation on terms of withdrawal, funding uncertainty for universities and concern about the future standing of British science

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has left British researchers worried about participation in EU funding programmes, the employment status of thousands of foreign scientists and the future standing of UK science.

The final ballot – 51.9 percent in favour of leaving the EU, with 48.3 per cent voting to remain – saw a majority of British voters reject the entreaties of researchers, who were almost universally for remaining.

Paul Nurse, former President of the Royal Society and now head of the Francis Crick Institute, called the result a “poor outcome” for research. "British scientists will have to work hard in the future to counter the isolationism of Brexit if our science is to continue to thrive,” he said.

A dejected Anne Glover, vice-principal at Aberdeen University and former chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, said she is heartbroken. “At the moment to me, the future for us in science, engineering and technology looks very bleak. I have a great concern about our future ability to collaborate closely on programmes like Horizon 2020. This would entail agreeing to free movement of people [but] stemming immigration seemed to be the main issue in this referendum,” she said.

Julia Goodfellow, president of the umbrella group Universities UK, which represents 133 higher education institutes, said her first priority will be to try convince the government to takes steps to ensure that staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities.

A tweet from Scientists for EU, an advocacy group very visible during the campaign, conveyed a huge sense of disappointment. “We fought for over a year to prevent this”, it read. 

Their rivals Scientists for Britain, a group which supported Brexit, did not respond to a request for comment.

Scientists based in the UK do better from the EU than almost any group, winning billions of euros of research funding. The UK contributed nearly €5.4 billion to EU research projects from 2007 to 2013, but received nearly €8.8 billion back in the same period. In the current science programme Horizon 2020 UK universities have already won over €5 billion in grant money.


Slightly more upbeat was the outlook of Imperial College London president Alice Gast. “Imperial is, and will remain, a European university, whatever your view of the referendum outcome,” she said.

The UK’s science and universities minister Jo Johnson, a brother of leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson, said, “Big decision. Let’s make it work.”

Uncertain next steps

The next step for the UK is to figure out the new relationship it wants to have with the EU. The UK government will have to decide when to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would then give two years to negotiate withdrawal. During the negotiations, the UK remains a member on exactly the same terms as today.

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said the government’s main priority in talks should be ensuring that research “is not short changed”, and that “the overall funding level of science is maintained.”

During the two year interval British researchers may continue applying for Horizon 2020 funding, but it is possible the divorce process, which Commission officials have stressed must begin urgently, will be messy and unpredictable.

“EU cannot be so compassionate that it [inadvertently] encourages other EU countries to want to leave the EU,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of The League of European Universities, a gathering of 21 universities, five of them British.

He cites the example of Switzerland, a serial winner of EU grants, which was swiftly locked out of Horizon 2020 two years ago following a vote on limiting immigration from Croatia.

“Getting the country back into Horizon 2020 took blood, sweat and tears,” said Deketelaere. A sticking plaster deal, which sees the Swiss government paying for Swiss researchers, will be reviewed next February.

The government will have to put up money to make up for any loss in funding from the EU, said Nicola Blackwood, a Conservative politician and chair of the UK parliament’s science and technology committee. “If EU research funding is affected after the exit negotiations that follow, the Treasury may have to reallocate funds previously sent to the EU,” she said.

A recent report from Digital Science, a tech consultancy, estimated that the UK could lose £1 billion each year if the government did not make up the shortfall. 

Syed Kamall, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, called on EU officials to refrain from this sort of punishment.

“I hope that we can see a cool and sensible reaction that keeps in mind the need for Britain and the rest of Europe to continue cooperating in those areas where it is in our mutual interest. We now need to move on from being reluctant tenants to becoming friendly neighbours,” Kamall said.

While the UK’s disentanglement is being sorted out, Deketelaere expects UK researchers will continue to make applications to Horizon 2020 as normal. “Practically nothing changes in the next two years. It’s business as usual,” he said.

As the second-largest economy and third biggest contributor to the EU budget, UK withdrawal will have consequences for the research programme that follows Horizon 2020.

With planning for the new programme underway, the EU faces a choice between making up the difference, probably by asking for other member states to chip in more, or cutting EU spending, including research.

It is also possible that, like 16 other countries, Britain could pay to continue taking part in Horizon 2020 from the outside.


The results showed marginal support for the measure, with 17.4 million voting to leave and 16.3 million to remain, on a turnout of 72 per cent. In England and Wales voters came out strongly for Brexit, while London, Scotland and Northern Ireland backed staying in the EU.

Most university cities showed strong support for Remain. In England, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester returned big majorities. In Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh also voted Remain.

In contrast, Sheffield, which has two universities, narrowly voted Leave. Swindon, the city where Innovate UK and the research councils are headquartered, voted in favour of Brexit. 

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