“People in this country have had enough of experts”: How Brexit Could Affect Scientists in the UK

Five years ago, I was in Lille, France, on a two-month sabbatical from my UK PhD program. The sabbatical was supported by a European Union (EU) grant to promote scientific interaction between member states. By all measures, it was a roaring success—far better than we had dared to hope. We had gone in with the expectation that nothing would work but that it was worth a go, and I came out with an entire thesis chapter and a paper based on two months’ work.

Not only was the sabbatical directly useful as a scientific endeavor, it was also a great experience. I learned about some of the intricacies of the French scientific system. I went to Waterloo near the anniversary of the historic battle there; I ate vast amounts of cheese; I marveled at the holidays the French seemed to have every other week. I lived in dank student accommodation (about which my hosts were very apologetic), but I have nothing but fond memories for the two months I spent there. I have recently realized how much I took for granted that this was an opportunity available to me.

On June 23rd, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU.

What will this mean for science in the UK, and beyond? The implications for science of Brexit are both uncertain and unlikely to be clarified soon. And scientific research, as an enterprise, does not deal well with uncertainty.



Immediately after the results were certain, I gave my initial response to a call from Nature for reactions from scientists:

mcdowell statement

What did I mean by “a science funding system already strained”? Last August, I made a brief visit to the UK, gave some talks on my research, and scoped out the situation for academic jobs. It became clear pretty quickly that funding was a key concern—and this was before Brexit was even really an issue on anyone’s mind.

Science funding by the UK has stagnated for years, It was only through the “Science is Vital” campaign that funding for science was not cut by the coalition government of 2010, but it wasn’t increased either. EU funding currently makes up around 15% of the UK’s research and development funding. The UK has benefitted financially in terms of research funding (see Table 1 and surrounding discussion). The UK has become overly dependent on EU funding. In 2012, the UK spent only 1.63% of its GDP on research, lagging behind other countries with large research output.

Jo Johnson, UK Science Minister, claimed that world class research would “endure” in the UK and that researchers should be “optimistic about the future.” But he could not provide any guarantees about EU funds and the UK will also no longer be able to shape research policy from outside the EU.

The official line is that nothing has changed, but universities are already feeling the pain. The UK is still an EU member for at least two years, and there is much commentary that the UK will continue to pay into the EU’s research and innovation program, Horizon 2020, much like Switzerland. However, the Swiss have restricted their access to EU funds by restricting freedom of movement, a crucial aspect of Brexit, and particularly funds allowing young researchers to move around, such as Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellowships and the Erasmus Programme (note the first lines on this Web page).

This is crucial because the scientific enterprise is about more than money; it is about people. More concerning than the issue of funding is what the introduction of added bureaucracy and complications will do to international collaborations, and what the question over mobility of researchers—and the recent spike in xenophobia and racism—will change in the minds of junior scientists looking to come to, return to, or stay in the UK.



Jo Johnson, fresh from providing the assurances given above about UK science, soon had to address the issue that UK researchers risk exclusion from collaborative projects in the EU. In this vacuum devoid of certainty, with no realistic assurances, I would be very surprised if researchers in the EU, albeit with a heavy heart, do not begin to rule out collaborations with UK researchers over the next two years of negotiations. It is even the case that although the official line has not changed, misinformation and requests to withdraw UK researchers from or to not involve UK researchers in projects are filtering into the system:

And as one Horizon 2020 coordinator observed on Scientists for EU’s Facebook page:


Which brings us to the mobility of young researchers.


The mobility of junior researchers

Stephen Hawking noted that the strong research record encouraged the best young EU scientists to think about moving to the UK. Paul Nurse stated that free movement of people is essential for UK science, and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan has called for assurances from the government for residency for EU researchers.

No such assurance is forthcoming; quite the opposite. This means that all non-UK citizens may experience issues with immigration such as those currently experienced by U.S. researchers moving to the UK. Also with immigration rhetoric in its current state in the UK, quotas on immigration could potentially be very tough and restrictive for non-UK researchers.

Buzzfeed interviewed a range of scientists at various career stages on their opinions, and in particular some young European scientists currently in the UK who are now reconsidering their future there. There is now the question of belonging, or being welcomed, in the UK. This is a worry for all non-UK researchers, from the EU, United States, or elsewhere, and is likely to affect their desire to come to the UK.


I titled this blog post using a direct quote from UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Xenophobia and racism have spiked recently in the UK. Reporting of hate crimes has increased. Issues of funding and academic job security aside, the UK is not presenting an attractive image to those of us outside it. There does not appear to be a desire to welcome those who are foreign or those with expertise. It is not encouraging expats I have spoken with to return.

Freedom of movement goes both ways. What does this mean for UK researchers who wish to go to Europe? This point seems entirely uncertain, and may depend on how restrictive the UK is to EU researchers. Junior scientists from the UK may now face new visa requirements, where until recently they enjoyed the ability to move throughout Europe practically as if they were within the UK.


Concluding thoughts

In the process of negotiation, UK science and universities may end up with the relatively unchanged situation that many hope for. But that situation is a long way away and is fraught with uncertainty. Those who argue that there is not a problem if things end up being similar are not appreciating the incentives and risks that people consider as they move around to do science in the near term. Science is a highly mobile affair—look at Emmanuelle Charpentier’s movements around the world as a case in point—and the entire incentive structure for moving to or from the UK, and the risks involved for young researchers, have completely changed. Science is so competitive that many researchers just can’t afford to enter into uncertain positions. The longer the uncertainty continues, the more likely young scientists in the UK are to leave, and expats and foreign researchers are to stay away.


Next steps

Scientists for EU (@Scientists4EU), a campaign that previously discussed the possibilities of the effect of Brexit on science prior to the vote, are already trying to gather evidence for the effect of Brexit on UK researchers—watch this space.

A previous version of this post appeared on The Node.


Do you have thoughts or comments? Please feel free to get in touch below.

About the Author:

Gary McDowell is Executive Director of The Future of Research, Inc. (http://futureofresearch.org/), a nonprofit organization seeking to champion, engage and empower early career researchers with evidence-based resources to help them make improvements to the research enterprise. He is a COMPASS alumnus.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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