Cambridge currently receives 13% of its grants from the EU.Noella Chye

Brexit is looming, and scientists are getting worried. With less than half a year until the world’s messiest divorce, and still no clear picture of what the deal will look like, concerns are growing in the scientific community about the future of research in the UK.

At the heart of the problem is funding. Currently, British scientists have access to a wide variety of EU research funds. Over the period 2007 – 2013 the UK received €8.8 billion out of a total of €107 billion expenditure on research, development and innovation in EU Member States. The Horizon 2020 programme alone has awarded €4.6 billion to the UK thus far.

Under a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario, UK institutions would lose access to almost half of these funds, leaving a gaping hole of €577.35 million a year.

The cost of Brexit for science is not simply monetary, however. With 17% of academic staff in UK universities originating from other EU countries, and researchers regularly relocating as part of their careers, the scientific community relies on interconnectivity and the constant exchange of ideas. Whether this international model can survive under Brexit remains to be seen, but scientists in the UK are already feeling the consequences of this uncertainty, as many find themselves struggling to secure collaborators or fill key positions.

As one of the premier scientific institutions in this country, and indeed the world, the University of Cambridge stands to lose a great deal. Its reputation as a global research hub seems far less sure if scientists are not free to come and go as new projects develop, and the issue of funding looms large here, too. At the moment, the University receives around £60 million per year in grant income from the EU, a sum which represents approximately 13% of the total cost of research in Cambridge.

Prominent Cambridge academics have expressed concern, including Chemist Sir John Walker, Nobel Prize Laureate, emeritus director at the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit and fellow at Sidney Sussex college. He was one of 35 Fields Medallists and Nobel Prize winners who lent their names to an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Theresa May in October this year, expressing regret at the UK’s decision to leave the EU and calling on May to “strive to ensure that as little harm as possible is done to research”.

“Science is an international pursuit, it does not happen on a national level”

“I’m very concerned about the impact Brexit may have on UK science”, Walker told Varsity.  Over the course of his lifetime, he observed Europe establishing itself as a key player in the scientific world. “When I was doing my PhD in Oxford in the 1960s, everyone’s ambition was to go to the United States for their PostDocs”, he said. In the 1980s, the EU significantly increased funding opportunities for scientists, leading to a change in attitude that continues to persist today. “Now, when I speak to students or PostDocs about where they wish to go next, the US as a destination has become an exception: most of them want to be in Europe”.

But without the funding for this kind of European mobility, both the European and British positions on the global science market could change. “Science is an international pursuit, it does not happen on a national level”, Walker said. Restricting the UK’s access to international scientific networks could harm research for years to come. 

Professor Richard Henderson also signed the letter to Theresa May in October. The Cambridge molecular biologist and Nobel Prize Laureate told Varsity that it is imperative to minimise social barriers in order for scientific collaborations to flourish. “The most important factor is the ease of getting visas for scientific visitors. Hopefully this will be a high priority for the post-Brexit government, especially for Europeans”, said Henderson.

In addition to a potential loss of funding and mobility, Walker is concerned about the way science will be conducted in the UK post-Brexit. “From my perception, the UK government wants to increasingly control the projects on which UK science funding is spent. In other words, they are trying to direct science top down, and tell people which projects to work on.” This is different from European funding bodies, such as the European Research Council (ERC), which makes its grant awarding decisions primarily on the quality of the research being proposed ‒ a philosophy that has proven to be very successful.

The major discoveries of the late 20th century came from scientists pursuing their own interest, freely and without being told what to do. “Two prime examples which I witnessed first hand were the creation of DNA sequencing by Fred Sanger and the invention of monoclonal antibodies by George Köhler and César Millstein”, Walker said.  

Whilst transforming science, these findings have also resulted in profits amounting to billions of pounds. With decreasing funds and influence from the EU after Brexit, Walker is worried that more and more research in the UK will be directed by the government as opposed to by the scientists themselves. That, Walker believes, “would be a colossal mistake”.


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Henderson argues that it will be very important for the UK to remain in all trans-European scientific organisations. “It is important for the UK to remain involved, and this needs an explicit arrangement to be negotiated”, said Henderson. Switzerland and Norway currently have agreements with the EU which allow them to be part of its scientific organisations. The UK will need to do the same, which will result in a post-Brexit Britain paying more into the ERC scheme than it does at the moment. Currently, the UK enjoys a net benefit, receiving more in funds than it pays in.

With chaos in Westminster and only 133 days left until the UK leaves the European Union, what will be remains uncertain. For science to thrive, Britain will need to refrain from cutting ties to the international research community. In the words of the late Stephen Hawking: "Gone are the days when we could stand on our own, against the world. We need to be part of a larger group of nations."

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