How will Brexit will affect scientific research? © Getty Images

How will Brexit affect scientific research?

UK scientists want to keep tapping into the EU’s funding pot, but that might not be so easy when the UK leaves the European Union. Tania Rabesandratana explains.

The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union at 11pm on Friday 29 March. Like most areas of British society, science and tech will be affected by the divorce.

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Chief among the concerns of UK researchers is, well, money. Scientists in Britain have a strong record of earning EU research funds, second only to Germany and above France. UK scientists want to be able to keep tapping into Horizon 2020, the EU’s big seven-year science funding pot, and its successor Horizon Europe, that will start in 2021. This will require paying into the programme through an association agreement, like countries such as Norway.

If there is no deal before Brexit, the UK will become a third country to the EU come March. UK researchers would lose access to three major Horizon 2020 funding lines that make up about 45 per cent of the €4.79 billion (£4.19 billion) received by UK organisations since 2014.

Besides hard cash, Britain is set to lose less tangible science currency – influence and reputation. “All Brexit deals look like different shades of bad” for UK research, says Mike Galsworthy, director of the pro-EU campaign group Scientists for EU. “If we have a deal, our policy influence steps down but we are still loosely in the ecosystem.” A no-deal Brexit would be a “sudden shock” with “lots of broken contracts all over the place to catch up on,” he says. Science would become just one, lower-priority item on a long list of issues for the government to negotiate.

Prof Alison Smith, a plant scientist at the University of Cambridge, who has been involved in several EU-funded projects, says her field of algae biotech needs easy cooperation across borders and disciplines to develop. “In my field you have to be able to know about engineering, regulation, how to scale up. It’s not possible to do with just one lab,” she says. Negotiations have already slowed down cooperation, made it harder to recruit the best researchers and “limit the opportunities for the UK to have leadership” in a still-growing area, she adds.

While a survey in the journal Nature showed that most UK researchers opposed Brexit, some see a silver lining – freeing the country from constrictive EU regulations.

“Leaving the EU should, in theory, free us from bureaucracy,” says Prof Angus Dalgleish, an oncologist at the University of London. “Several areas of research, such as GMO and stem cell research, could be expected to take a significant lead when free of the specific EU regulations that inhibit these areas at present.”

In any case, one lasting Brexit side-effect is that science has gained importance in political debates. Since the vote, all three major parties have recognised its key role in Britain’s economy and pledged to boost research budgets.

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