UK scientists rely on the EU and dread Brexit

Researchers react to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union with apprehension, dismay, and—in some cases—exit plans of their own.

The UK’s scientific community has campaigned vocally and unsuccessfully to keep the country in the European Union. With the referendum results in and Brexit looming, where does that leave research projects, universities, and scientists who have until now been completely embedded in European funding structures and collaborations? We asked UK researchers what Brexit will mean for them and their work.


glover2Anne Glover is a biologist working at Aberdeen University. She looks at how the human body responds to stress at a molecular level. She has also been the Chief Scientific Advisor for Scotland and for the European Union, trying to make sure that governments have access to the best evidence for policy.

RG: What role has the EU played in your research?

Glover: The EU has been central to my research from provision of funding, finding the best staff, being able to submit grant applications with colleagues from across the EU. I also really appreciate on a day to day basis having other EU nationals working alongside me.

RG: What do you think Brexit’s impact on research and science in the UK will be?

Glover: In the short term, we are still eligible for all the funding program but there is a possibility that our EU colleagues may be less inclined to invite us to join their collaborations. Many institutions in the EU might be targeting the best in the UK to leave the UK to join them as this would be an attractive option for many fearing the future in an isolated UK. In the long term, the impact could be enormous if a suitable agreement is not reached for participation in H2020. Alternatively, we may be able to participate although not influence the agenda as we currently do. Whatever the outcome of negotiations, the UK would become a less attractive place for EU researchers to be because of the perception that has been created by the referendum result.


folarin2Amos Folarin is a data scientist focused on biological and healthcare problems. ​His research looks at better ways to monitor patients outside of hospitals with new wearable sensors and mobile phone technology. The aim of his work is to improve patient care and reduce costs.​

RG: What role has the EU played in your research?

Folarin: The EU has ​been fundamental in pushing this research field forward. I'm presently working on a 22-million-euro project that’s part of the IMI Horizon 2020 initiative. It looks at how we can improve healthcare by remote monitoring patients with depression, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. This project is half funded by the private sector and half by the European Union.

This is a project of immense complexity, and creating the technology to carry it out requires very specific expertise. The EU has enabled us to select an excellent consortium of partners with the skillset and knowledge base to execute this project. The major challenges in science are large, and difficult for a single institute or country to work on in a competitive way.

RG: How did you feel when the referendum results were announced?

Folarin: Depressed. This will certainly affect my outlook. Ultimately, my long term position is tied to the best place for doing this type of work. ​

woollard2Alison Woollard
is an academic and science communicator in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford. Her research involves using the nematode worn C. elegans as a model system to understand basic biological problems with biomedical relevance, particularly development, ageing, and neurodegenerative disease.

ResearchGate: What role has the EU played in your research?

Woollard: The most important roles that the EU has played in my research involve freedom of movement and collaboration. In a recent recruitment exercise following the award of a large grant, the bulk of my shortlist—and ultimately all three appointees—were from non-UK EU countries. I have several collaborators in the EU, most notably in the Netherlands, where we are working on a joint research project to reduce the numbers of mammals used in product safety testing. I am also involved in on-going staff and student exchanges.

Collaborating with colleagues in other EU countries has involved establishing new methodologies in my lab, including the new CRISPR/CAS9 genome editing technology and other transgenic methodologies, exchange of ideas and staff for training purposes, and access to specialized equipment not available in the UK. Scientific research in the 21st century is a collaborative endeavor in which people, ideas, and methodology must be freely exchanged. The EU is a pretty good attempt at creating a framework in which these ideals can be realized.

RG: How did you feel when the referendum results were announced?

Woollard: I felt extremely disappointed and disillusioned. Friday was a dark day in my department and across the university—I have never seen so many people looking so gloomy. Several were in tears.

RG: What do you think Brexit’s impact on research and science in the UK will be?

Woollard: The impact of Brexit on science in the UK has the potential to be disastrous. This fact was recognized by the over 90 percent of scientists who so vociferously opposed Brexit. In the short term, nothing will change other than people’s perception of whether the UK is a good place to come and do good science. And that of course is in itself a big problem.

In the long term, the UK will likely find itself shut out of ERC funding streams completely unless it can satisfy freedom of movement requirements. Switzerland has already had its access to Horizon 2020 funding limited following its own referendum on immigration policy. But with the British electorate citing immigration as the number one reason they voted for Brexit, how can it possibly be the case that immigration will not be a major sticking point in any associate member negotiations? The UK science community will have to work very hard indeed if we are to leave the EU with our scientific credibility anything like intact.


maher2Stephen Maher is a senior lecturer and associate professor of biomedical science at the University of Hull, where he leads the Cancer Biology and Therapeutics Laboratory. For the better part of a decade his research group has worked predominantly on oesophageal cancer, a priority research area in the UK, where incidence rates are the highest in Europe.

RG: What role has the EU played in your research?

Maher: The EU plays a critical part in the success of our research. Our major research collaborators include research groups from the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. In addition to UK students, my group currently has PhD students from Italy and the Czech Republic, who are funded through the Erasmus exchange program. And the larger cancer research group at the university has benefitted substantially from EU research funding.

In the past, members of our research group have benefitted from training in other EU member states. This has introduced new skills to my laboratory, and has benefitted these young scientists substantially. Additionally, in the spirit of cooperation, we have both supplied and been supplied with unique and precious research materials, such as biological samples from patient clinical trials, all of which has been made possible through collaborations with EU partners.

RG: How did you feel when the referendum results were announced?

Maher: Frankly, I was stunned, which turned quickly to worry and disappointment.

RG: What do you think Brexit’s impact on research and science in the UK will be?

Maher: As an Irish citizen I have enjoyed working in the UK, which has provided me with such a dynamic and welcoming research environment, and the opportunity to teach thousands of budding young scientists over the years. It is worrying and disappointing that the next generations of young UK scientists may not have access to the opportunities that those in the past have enjoyed. From my own research group, I have been informed by two UK students of their intention to emigrate upon graduation, as they feel there is now likely to be less opportunity for them in the UK. I think the “brain-drain” will be significant in the short term, and incredibly damaging to UK science. But most tragically, it is ultimately the patients who will pay the real price in the long run.


wilsdon2James Wilsdon is a professor of research policy in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the chair of the UK’s Campaign for Social Science, which works to increase the influence of the social sciences in policy, the media and across society. His own research focuses on the relationship between evidence, expertise and policymaking; and how to govern and manage research systems in the UK and internationally.

RG: What role has the EU played in your research?

Wilsdon: In the past, I have been both a principal investigator and co-investigator on several EU framework projects. Like everyone in UK universities, I benefit enormously from free movement across the EU, research collaborations, and the many students I’ve had from across the EU, particularly at postgraduate level. I’ve also long been involved in research and science policy activities at the European level—most recently in my role as the chair of a new European Commission group on altmetrics, which is advising the Commission on how to use research metrics robustly and responsibly in the design of the next framework program. If we really want to influence research cultures, incentives, and behaviors in a positive direction, it’s far more effective to do that at the European level—across 28 countries, rather than just one.

RG: How did you feel when the referendum results were announced?

Wilsdon: I’m deeply upset by the result of the referendum. And I think it’s crucial to emphasize that for most UK academics, our primary concerns are not about research funding, or student numbers (worrying though the result is on both of those fronts) but more broadly, about what this momentous decision will mean for the UK—economically, politically and culturally—over the coming years. To reduce our agenda to whether or not we’ll be part of Horizon 2020, is to massively impoverish the voice, interests, and potential contribution of the research community to the acute challenges that now lie ahead. So my primary sadness on Friday morning was for my kids, my community, my country—and only after that, for what this will mean for research.

It depresses me that, as well as potentially losing access to EU funding, the UK’s voice will no longer be part of the wider EU conversation about the governance and direction of research, and about how we can work together more effectively to meet pressing societal challenges.

RG: What do you think Brexit’s impact on research and science in the UK will be?

Wilsdon: On top of six years of flat funding from our own government, we now have to contemplate a significant reduction in research funding from Europe. It’s important to remember that the UK is a net beneficiary in this area: between 2007 and 2013 the UK received an estimated €3.4 billion more than it paid into the EU in terms of funding for research and innovation. So losing those funds will further destabilize our research system, and for some subjects, particularly in the social sciences, the proportion of EU funding is 20, 30 or even 40% of the total.

More than that, I think the most negative consequences will be in terms of mobility of students and researchers. Long-term, it’s hard to see how this outcome doesn’t lead to a reduction in the number of students coming to the UK from elsewhere in the UK, particularly if their fees are set at “international” levels.

So these are dark times for British science. We need to reflect hard on what all this means, on how our views and values in the university sector have become disconnected from the views and values of so many in the communities we inhabit. And we need to contribute to the task of rebuilding from this mess, and doing our best to preserve aspects of European collaboration and solidarity (in research, but also across many other arenas) that remain so precious, and essential to our common future.

Featured image courtesy of Charles Clegg