Science after Brexit: the end of UK science?

From the invention of logarithms by St Andrews graduate John Napier in 1614 to more recent successes such as the Nobel Prize-winning isolation of graphene by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester in 2012, the United Kingdom has been a world leader in scientific research for over half a millennium. Despite only representing 0.9% of global population, the UK produces 15.9% of the world’s most highly-cited articles [1], a clear indicator that the science sector in our country is booming.

This success is not simply due to good British science and policy as, over the last forty years, UK science has become increasingly reliant on the European Union for both funding and regulation, as well as for the freedom to study and collaborate across 28 member states and additional third party nations. As the UK prepares to withdraw from the European Union, could our long-standing reputation as a global powerhouse of science and technology now be under threat?

In response to this potentially stark change in the scientific landscape in our country, the University of St Andrews, PhySoc (in collaboration with a number of other societies) organised a panel discussion entitled “Science after Brexit”, which took place Friday 17th February. The conversation was chaired by the Principle, Professor Sally Mapstone and featured four prominent panellists: Ms Catherine Stihler (Labour MEP for Scotland and University Rector); Professor David Cole-Hamilton (Professor in School of Chemistry and President of the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences); Professor Angus Dalgleish (Director of Scientists for Britain); and Dr Mike Galsworthy (Director of Scientists for EU).

From the left: Dr Mike Galsworthy, Professor Angus Dalgleish, Professor Sally Mapstone, Professor David Cole-Hamilton, Ms. Catherine Stihler


As science has become more expensive and our world has become more global, individual institutions have begun to collaborate and national governments have begun to pool resources. In recent decades, the European Union has played an increasingly large role in UK science, as the sector is a net beneficiary of the EU despite the UK as a whole being a net contributor. Through the period 2007 – 2013 the EU spent over €8.8 billion on research, development, and innovation in the UK through Framework Programme 7 and other initiatives [2] and the UK is now benefiting from its successor Horizon 2020, receiving more than €1.2 billion in 2015 alone.

If the UK does indeed leave the European Union, its scientists and institutions would no longer be automatically eligible to apply for grants and investment unless it joins in some way as an associate nation. Regardless of the uncertainty that looms in the coming years, it is expected that in the long term the UK will do some sort of deal with the EU giving it associate membership. Professor Cole-Hamilton laid out a number of forms that this could take stating that “most scientists prefer the Norway model” which sees central government contribute to the EU budget in return for access to most benefits of full membership but without a seat at the decision-making table.

In the short term, it has already been confirmed that the UK government will underwrite payments for all Horizon 2020 projects started before the UK’s exit from the EU [3]. Despite this, it was pointed out by most members of the panel that this is a political promise and that there is no concrete plan for funding beyond that.

Professor Dalgleish is a professor of oncology at St George’s, University of London and campaigned for the UKs withdrawal from the EU largely on the grounds of regulation. He has had personal experience of being forced to terminate research in particular areas due to methods he was using being outlawed by the EU. The EU passes two main types of legislation; regulations and directives. Regulations are legally binding in all member states whereas directives are a set of end results that must be achieved, but how to achieve them is left to national governments. With respect to EU directives, Professor Dalgleish argues that the UK Government has “applied them without thinking”, leading to considerable damage in numerous areas of research. Despite saying that both Labour and Conservative governments have “all been totally and equally hopeless” he hopes that if the UK leaves the EU completely, the government will be forced to take more responsibility for regulation and be more accountable.

Scientists for EU


Opposing this, Dr Galsworthy touched upon the fact that that the UK Government is not currently in a position to begin rewriting “thousands and thousands” of regulations and laws, as it has many other matters to attend to such as negotiating future trading relationships with Europe, suggesting that the immediate effects could resemble “a circus”. In addition, Professor Cole-Hamilton argued that despite being a hindrance in some specific cases, regulations are designed for protection: of both people and the environment.

One of the greatest benefits of the European Union is the way in which it allows academics, researchers and students from across Europe to study and collaborate freely and share ideas. According to Professor Mapstone, at St Andrews alone, one in three entering postgraduates were from other EU countries in the last academic year and nationally 21% of the UK science and maths HE workforce are EU nationals [4]. This helps to attract the best and brightest in Europe to UK institutions but the government appears to be prioritising an end to many aspects of freedom of movement in any exit deal and therefore this freedom may be under threat. Professor Mapstone has stated that nonetheless, both staff and student recruitment appears to be “holding up” at present but Professor Cole-Hamilton outlined his opinion that in the long term an arrangement should be made regarding the freedom of movement of people in research to maintain current levels of recruitment.

One of the few things that all the panellists appeared to agree on was the need to maintain a mechanism for building collaborations with institutions worldwide. Dr Galsworthy described the European Union as “a fantastic driving force in working together” and this shows as according to recent UNESCO data, 55.9% of UK publications are international collaborations compared with just 34.8% in the USA [5]. Many of the larger European collaborations and associations are European in geography and are independent of the EU and so the UK’s membership of these would be largely unaffected by Brexit.

Scientists for Britain. The issues lie in the many smaller projects involving single researchers from a few institutions that may face problems in applying for funding. Professor Cole-Hamilton highlighted the difficulties in trying to set up a collaboration with researchers in the US where there is currently no mechanism for partnership in place. He said that in some cases this caused researchers to simply avoid these collaborations. The recommendations made by the panel included a Swiss-style system with EU collaborations being funded nationally and the creation of bilateral agreements with Eastern European nations.


Overall, it seems fairly certain that in the short term there may be negative effects on the UK science sector if we do ultimately leave the European Union, but the panel was unanimous in offering a positive vision for the future. Dr Galsworthy said that he has “no doubt that we will negotiate some sort of deal with the EU to be an associate member” although it is generally thought that this kind of arrangement would take longer to negotiate than the two years the government currently plans for; Ms Stihler stated that she believed such a deal may take “seven to ten years”. While there is no guarantee, Professor Cole-Hamilton proposed that the money promised in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement showed that “the Government appears to be listening” to the scientific community; he also said that “scientists in the EU want us to remain engaged”. These two factors offer a source of optimism that constructive negotiations can take place and that the end result will be positive for UK science.

Whilst it seems like UK science may be about to hit a bump in the road, there appears to hope that it will continue striding forwards in the future.








One Response to “Science after Brexit: the end of UK science?”
  1. Phil Marshall says:

    A very thorough analysis of the debate! Here’s hoping that the future of science research is safe!

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