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From what I've seen in the media, almost all British scientists think Brexit is bad for British science. However I don't understand why. Some of the most common reasons I've seen are:

Loss of funding - UK researchers receive lots of funds from EU grants, and these would not last once the UK leaves. But since the UK pays the EU more than it receives in benefits, the UK could simply redirect some of that money into science. It could be that the UK does not actually redirect the money, but that would be because the UK as a whole decided that science isn't worth it, in which case it would be democracy in action and one can't really complain.

Isolation - this seems to be based on the idea that Brexit makes the UK a less attractive place to work in. However the US didn't seem to suffer a similar brain drain after the 2016 elections, so it's not obvious to me that the UK will. Individuals might leave, but there's apparently no shortage of people wanting to move to the UK anyway (e.g. there were record numbers of international applicants to British universities in spite of Brexit).

Loss of collaborations - it's not clear to me why this would happen. The EU presumably doesn't have a "you may only collaborate with other EU researchers" rule, since there're lots of countries that are not part of the EU. But if they don't have such a rule then presumably collaborations can persist whether or not the UK is within the EU. Further, the EU would be incentivized to keep such collaborations because they're presumably win-win. Finally, even if EU collaborations are jeopardized, there's still the rest of the world. There are scientific powerhouses like the US that aren't part of the EU either.

Other reasons I've seen, like "there's no clarity on what we can or cannot do", should be temporary. They might be causing problems now, but five years in the future they should be resolved also.

Is there anything about Brexit that is fundamentally injurious to British science? If not, why do UK scientists so universally regard Brexit as grim?

Controversial Post — You may use comments ONLY to suggest improvements. You may use answers ONLY to provide a solution to the specific question asked above. Moderators will remove debates, arguments or opinions without notice. See: Why do the moderators move comments to chat and how should I behave afterwards?

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    I think it would be better if you would reformulate the post to more neutral. It looks now like a question as a lead, and then answering it on the spot, from an against brexit view. Furthermore, some proof that the majority of the scientists are against brexit, would be also useful. And, if you detail the anti-brexit arguments, you should detail also the pro-brexit ones (but the best would be if you would just ask, and not argument). – peterh Jul 25 '18 at 19:37
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    @Allure Hunt for neutral facts and include them into the post. But what is your question? You summarized a view, you essentially answered your question already in the post. What do you want to know what you didn't write in your question already? Brexit is a hot topic, this question generates high visit count and vote counts, but it also generates infights. How can you guarantee that the advantages will be better for the site than the disadvantages? – peterh Jul 25 '18 at 19:48
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    I'm sure all the people currently subsisting on research grants will be happy to pause their work and live off fairies and moonbeams until all the outstanding issues are resolved. – Ian Kemp Jul 26 '18 at 9:37
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    I would like to understand the purpose of the bounty. Can you clarify? In your question, you state that most British scientists think Brexit will be bad. All the answers so far agree and explain why. So what is the purpose of this bounty? Are you running afoul of the false equivalence fallacy? Did you make up your mind before asking the question, and the answers are not what you want to hear? What in particular do you object to in the current answers, except for their conclusion that Brexit will be bad for UK academia? Certainly someone wanting to get your bounty will need that information. – user9646 Jul 27 '18 at 17:56
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    I would comment on your question as a non-UK non-EU researcher who was considering to come to work in the UK before but has completely changed his plans after Brexit was announced. Regardless of other things that could happen, the mobility and width of rights of third country nationals working in the UK definitely will decrease which makes UK much less attractive than, say, Europe. You mentioned that US science did not suffer after 2016 elections - this is not quite true. Many people stopped considering US a place to work and many others (including me) are making effort to leave it asap. – demitau Jul 28 '18 at 23:10
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+500

tl;dr: Although it is possible to have Brexit without British science suffering, this would require meaningful political support, and there is little to suggest that this will be forthcoming in the near future.

A recent report by the Royal Society provides some context. This report is focussed on the British research sector as a whole, rather than on science specifically, but not too much turns on that. Some key figues include:

  • Britain receives a significant amount of funding from European bodies (e.g. ERC)
  • A sizeable fraction of the UK science workforce originates from other EU countries (16% of academic staff; 14% of PhD students)
  • 70% of British researchers held a non-UK affiliation at some point in the period 1996-2011, although there is no EU-specific figure.

The overall picture is that British research benefits from EU membership, through direct financial input and through mobility of individuals. British universities are disproportionately well-regarded on the international stage (e.g. the Times Higher Education ranking has 7 British universities in the top 50, compared to 7 from the rest of the EU combined), and so historically Britain has been able to attract excellent researchers from around the world, especially EU neighbours.

It is right to say that Brexit does not need to change any of this. However, maintaining the status quo would require political and financial investment from the government, and there has been little evidence that this will be forthcoming in the short term - especially given the difficulties the government has had in agreeing the basic framework for Brexit. Domestic investment in research has fallen significantly in real terms in recent years, and it is not clear that any more cash will be available in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

It is also currently unclear how EU citizens currently living in the UK, and British citizens living in other EU countries will be affected. Some progress has been made on this, but (anecdotally) not enough to allay individuals' concerns. This is compounded by (real or perceived) xenophobic attitudes that precipitated the Brexit vote. Numerous UK-based, non-British researchers of my acquaintance are concerned over what the future holds for them, and have started to consider what other options are open to them.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that the Brexit vote was correlated with socioeconomic status, and the ideology of Brexit has never enjoyed much support in any of the academic circles I have been familiar with.

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    worth noting that the other 24% of non-UK PhD students are not from the EU (which is a much larger talent pool than the EU) vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/are-you-thinking-of-doing-a-phd/… – Matt Jul 24 '18 at 11:56
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    @YemonChoi Why would EU students be higher quality? – Matt Jul 24 '18 at 13:11
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    +1 for explaining how, although some of these effects could be mitigated, the likelihood that they will be mitigated is very low - the possibility that things will be accounted for is not the same as the certainty that they will be accounted for. – Zibbobz Jul 24 '18 at 13:21
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    Anecdote: My niece (doctor of Physics) is working on an EU funded project. When the funding runs out (this year) they do not know if it will be renewed this time. Nobody knows. So they are all looking for other jobs. Of course they all voted Remain. – RedSonja Jul 24 '18 at 13:30
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    @Matt Some non-EU students, who may be admitted for various funding-related reasons, may not be as strong as some who happen to be from the EU. It's a question of competition versus non-competition, not any intrinsic benefit that "being from the EU" confers. I do not wish to say more here but if you are genuinely interested then you can find my contact details easily. – Yemon Choi Jul 24 '18 at 14:54
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Loss of funding - UK researchers receive lots of funds from EU grants, and these would not last once the UK leaves. But since the UK pays the EU more than it receives in benefits, the UK could simply redirect some of that money into science. It could be that the UK does not actually redirect the money, but that would be because the UK as a whole decided that science isn't worth it, in which case it would be democracy in action and one can't really complain.

The Brexiter's solution to everything. I thought this extra money was supposed to be used for the NHS? Or that it was supposed to be used to help British farmers/workers to help with the new tariffs with the EU? Even the proponents of Brexit had to admit that this was a lie, and that you cannot evaluate the repercussions of such a huge decision with a pocket calculator and two numbers. The fact is, nobody knows how research funding will be affected by Brexit, which has real consequences now: who will want to make a life commitment to go work in the UK when they don't know what their situation will be in 5 years?

The UK gets a lot of money for research through the ERC. Nobody knows how that will work out after Brexit. Only two non-EU countries participate in it – Switzerland and Israel, and two years ago it was not even clear if Switzerland would be allowed to stay in due to concerns regarding free movement of people. Compare this with the preoccupations of scientists, who are concerned whether they will be able to continue their research projects over the next ten years, hire new students, postdocs... Why should all this hinge on politics when you can play it safe and go work in an EU country?

Isolation - this seems to be based on the idea that Brexit makes the UK a less attractive place to work in. However the US didn't seem to suffer a similar brain drain after the 2016 elections, so it's not obvious to me that the UK will. Besides, there were record numbers of applicants to British universities in spite of Brexit.

I think I covered this extensively above. Let me add that issues regarding visas are also problematic. Applying for academic positions is already an ordeal, if one needs to apply for a visa afterwards with no certainty of getting it, it becomes hell. You may argue that, maybe, there will be deals to make sure that people from the EU can continue to work in the UK and get easy visas, but that's the thing – we don't know. Can you tell me that you would be willing to uproot your life, move to a new country, all the while not being sure whether you will be allowed to remain in the country based on the whims of ten DUP members of parliament?

The situation is also not at all comparable with the US elections. The elections are reversible; at the end of the year part of their congress is replaced, and in two years maybe this whole thing will be over. Brexit is a priori irreversible. Moreover, the general sentiment I feel when talking to people is that incompetence at the top prevents too drastic changes. Here, incompetence would mean the opposite – maximum change.

Loss of collaborations - it's not clear to me why this would happen. The EU presumably doesn't have a "you may only collaborate with other EU researchers" rule, since there're lots of countries that are not part of the EU. But if they don't have such a rule then presumably collaborations can persist whether or not the UK is within the EU. Further, the EU would be incentivized to keep such collaborations because they're presumably win-win. Finally, even if EU collaborations are jeopardized, there's still the rest of the world. There are scientific powerhouses like the US that aren't part of the EU either.

You have to understand how research is funded. The most attractive grants are collaborative. You apply for grants together with people from other institutions/countries, and then you get money to run experiments, organize workshops together, visit the other institutions part of the grant to learn from your collaborators and actually work in the same room...

Once again, it is unclear how Brexit will affect all this. Given a funding source and British partners, will it still be possible after Brexit to either keep it, or apply again for it? Nobody knows. Since applying for these grants is so time-consuming and the success rate so low, why would you risk it all on the bet that politicians will come to an agreement that suits you?

As for "the rest of the world", well, it's certainly easier to work with people who are a two-hour train ride away than a transatlantic flight away. And yes, the US is a powerhouse, which may not be as good for UK as you seem to think: why would US scientists bother to apply for grants with British scientists (from which funding source?!), when there are perfectly good collaborators already on the same continent working with the same funding sources (NSF etc)?


There is also the question of the timeline. You say that the situation is "temporary" and that "five years in the future [issues] should be resolved". One problem, as outlined above, is that we don't know if the situation will be resolved, or how. Perhaps the UK government will manage a complete upheaval of their research funding systems to not rely on external sources after 45 years of integration with the EU. Maybe not.

But you're forgetting about the irreversible effects that happen now. Students want to enter PhD programs. New PhDs want to find a postdoc. Postdocs want to find faculty jobs. Less funding and less certainty about the future means that these people either will not find a job in the UK and leave academia (if they are bent on staying in the UK) or apply for jobs elsewhere. And once you start working in some place, you're more likely to stay there, simply because you start to know the "system" better and you meet more people from that place.


Of course, I paint a pretty bad picture of the situation above. British academia will not collapse overnight on March 29th, 2019. But it will certainly be in a worse shape than today. And given the very competitive world we work in, everyone needs any edge they can get.

Finally, let me mention that two Nobel prize laureates have claimed that research will take a blow.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – StrongBad Jul 25 '18 at 14:44
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    That is not how this community works. The edit only removes inflammatory content aimed at the OP and does not change the intention of the answer unless your intention was to insult the OP. – StrongBad Jul 26 '18 at 15:42
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    Please raise the issue on Academia Meta if you need to discuss further. On Academia Meta we can have an extended discussion, with community and moderator input. – ff524 Jul 26 '18 at 17:01
  • There have been around 100 cases where EU citizens applied for visas for being highly qualified, didn't get it (not too unusual) and then were ordered to leave the UK by some home office retard (obviously with no legal basis whatsoever since they were EU citizens, but that's not really much comfort if you are ordered to leave the country). – gnasher729 Jul 29 '18 at 14:08
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    To have the right to stay in the UK after March 2019. – gnasher729 Jul 29 '18 at 21:53
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In addition to the practical, and very important answers that others have already given I will make this point about the emotional impact.

I'm a UK citizen in academia, but a lot of my colleagues, collaborators and students (both UG and PG) are from the EU. Before the Brexit vote they had almost exactly the same rights as me to live and work in UK academia. After the vote many feel that they don't, and after the exit they definitely won't (even if the precise nature of that is unclear).

They feel rejected and insulted. Their efforts, working within the UK to teach, and research, and improve our universities, have been deemed less important than the potential benefits of Brexit. I also think that the Brexit vote is an insult and a rejection not just of the EU as an institution but also of its citizens.

I've heard a lot of stories of xenophobic abuse increasing, particularly aimed at students, since the Brexit vote. But that's the nastiest end of the spectrum: most of the hurt that I hear expressed is about the steady normalisation within the UK in general of the idea that EU citizens are a problem.

TL;DR: Brexit supporters intentions and claims notwithstanding, the result is that EU students and academics feel insulted and rejected by Brexit, and this causes emotional damage at least as bad as the practical problems outlined.

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    Most of the stories I've heard are general members of the public, off-campus, insulting obviously non-UK students and staff ("go home, stop scrounging" etc). Few have been academia specific. – Ian Jul 24 '18 at 8:13
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    If anything, the "precise nature of that is unclear" part exacerbates the problem. If it was clear just what shape Brexit will take, people would be able to plan accordingly; without that certainty, people have to plan for the worst. – Geoffrey Brent Jul 24 '18 at 8:46
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    Thank you for providing this answer which doesn't relate to the tangible elements of Brexit. I have left UK academia for another EU country as a result of Brexit, and I always feel it's impossible to convey how much the tone of the public debate has changed, and how hostile it all felt (and still feels). – marts Jul 24 '18 at 22:18
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    @camden_kid one year ago I left the UK to go work in one of Northern Europe's top universities. At one of the last department events I mentioned this fact to one of my colleagues, to whom I had rarely spoken. She said "so you trust Juncker more? The EU steals our money and writes our laws". This coming from a university Lecturer. It's not racial abuse, but it was not nice knowing that they bought all Brexiteer's propaganda and would prefer you were not there. – TheWanderer Jul 25 '18 at 8:19
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    @camden_kid I've had my pregnant (professor) wife be shouted at by an alcoholic lying on the street, I've had my visiting (west-european) father called a paki, a mixed french-english couple had their kids told by classmates they don't belong in the UK. All this in the runup to the Brexit vote, and all in a small Russell League uni city. Then there's uncertainty to what extent uni management will stick up for you; and your continental colleagues have no idea whether having a UK partner in a grant proposal might suddenly make it unwinnable 6--12months after submitting, so they won't include you. – user3445853 Jul 25 '18 at 9:02
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The EU organises and funds programmes such as Horizon 2020, the Erasmus programme, and Erasmus Mundus. None of those can be replaced by the UK government in isolation.

On a personal note. Why do I feel so strongly? I am a Dutch citizen and presently a postdoc in England. I have personally benefitted tremendously from freedom of movement and from all three EU programmes mentioned above:

  • I thoroughly enjoyed an Erasmus exchange in Sweden (incidentally, among 200 exchange students, there were only 2 from the UK, both Scottish; I believe this anomaly may originate from the same island mentality which contributed to the Brexit vote in England, whereas Scotland voted by large majority for Remain; or it may simply be an anomaly/coincidence).
  • I obtained my Master through the Erasmus Mundus programme where I met my wife.
  • I am currently funded by Horizon 2020 within the UK.

So I thank my education, my wife, and my job to the European Union. I was living in the UK at the time of the Brexit vote, which has upset me more than any other vote in my life.

Fortunately, postdocs are exempt from the £35000/year income requirement, or EU postdocs might find themselves shut out of indefinite leave to remain completely (as most earn less than this). I hope we won't need to apply for a new visa every time a 1-year contract gets renewed by another year, like in the US.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – aeismail Jul 26 '18 at 21:31
  • "None of those can be replaced by the UK government in isolation." On the other hand, Brexit might not mean that the UK government ends up in isolation. Surely, scientific cooperation is also possible with countries outside of the EU. The EU scientific research programmes might just adapt to include outside contributions over time. – Trilarion Jul 30 '18 at 8:26
  • @Trilarion That entirely depends on what post-Brexit deals will be agreed to continue or replace those programmes. So far, there have been no deals agreed, so according to current information, they will cease. I would speculate that, in the event of a comprehensive soft Brexit deal in which those programmes essentially continue, opposition to Brexit within British science will lessen. – gerrit Jul 30 '18 at 9:42
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Just responding to the isolation part...

I am a non-EU postdoc working in UK. Postdocs have short contracts and visas are tied to contracts. I have recently got to 5 years and therefore residency after 4 short term visas. Total visa costs (just for me) over 5500 GBP and no funding provided. Add in my partner's visas to get the full cost.

Also, without residency, a postdoc can't really apply for research funding to the various research councils. This is because you have to make sure your new contract is in place before the current one expires (thrown out of the country at the end of a contract) and therefore the long funding decision cycles mean there's insufficient time to get a decision before moving to the next contract even if the next contract is at the same research group.

This makes UK very unattractive for non-EU postdocs. If postdocs aren't coming to the UK then the next generation of researchers is not going to be based in the UK.

UPDATE: It seems that some commentators were not sure why I was talking about non-EU postdocs. I am expecting that EU citizens in the future will be in a similar position as non-EU citizens now. That is the perspective I was bringing to this question. Barriers are high, so future UK based researchers won't have as broad a professional network because EU citizens are much less likely to do a postdoc in UK and that will lead to separation of the UK from the rest of the research community.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – aeismail Jul 28 '18 at 0:14
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"But since the UK pays the EU more than it receives in benefits, the UK could simply redirect some of that money into science. It could be that the UK does not actually redirect the money, but that would be because the UK as a whole decided that science isn't worth it, in which case it would be democracy in action and one can't really complain."

That's the answer. Democracy in action is not necessarily what's best for science. The UK receives a disproportionate amount of EU research funding. There is no reason to think that the UK will maintain this level of funding after Brexit. The EU (and other systems that I know of) does not apportion research funding democratically, but rather based on perceived scientific merit. This gives an advantage to some UK universities or researchers.

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    Exactly, science and research are not democratic, so the purveyors of science will not place democratic interests above their own. – user153812 Jul 24 '18 at 8:28
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    While the EU distributes money on estimated scientific benefit, that's not the full story. Many projects have actively sought British collaborators for non-scientific reasons; a chief reason being that they are native English speakers. While this usually isn't the sole reason to choose a particular collaborator, it does skew the distribution in favor of the UK. – MSalters Jul 24 '18 at 13:11
  • BTW, I agree with your answer. But I'd like to add that the UK's leaving could cause a decline in economic growth (thus a decline in tax revenue), which might invalidate your statement that the UK could simply spend its contributions on the EU on other stuff like academia. It's not as simple as summing direct payments and benefits, there are many regulatory changes that also have an impact (we don't know yet what the impact will be, it depends on many factors like the future relationship with the EU, but also external factors like foreign investments and possibly other trade deals). – JJJ Jul 27 '18 at 1:12
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    I deleted a discussion about the political classification and scientific output of other countries since it had no relevance to this post and was escalating. If you feel the need to discuss these things, please do so nicely in a chatroom. – Wrzlprmft Jul 27 '18 at 13:34
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    If the Tory party has to decide whether to spend £1bn to promote science projects in the UK, or to spend £1bn to bribe the DUP in order to stay in power, who do you think will win? – gnasher729 Jul 29 '18 at 21:59
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From my perspective it is mainly about freedom of movement. Within the Union all citizens can move freely between countries without need for visas and other permits (for example work or residency). From a country in the Union to one outside, in general you will need visa and a plethora of permits to be able to start an employment (for example a research position).

If a person needs to pay more and go through more paperwork and wait longer for a position, it is reasonable to believe there is an increased chance that person will rather take some easier, faster and cheaper route in one of the countries within the Union.

  • I think part of that is that you do not even start to worry moving inside the EU - or if you do, only for seconds. The difference felt between no worry and a little worry is larger than, between two larger worries of larger, but unclear size. – Volker Siegel Jul 29 '18 at 13:32
  • @VolkerSiegel My guess is that you largely overestimate the worry capability of your people of interest. – mathreadler Jul 29 '18 at 15:12
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Because scientists have political beliefs, and most of them are left of average voter so in general they opposed Brexit.

So they are more likely to pick on the negative sides of Brexit and ignore the good ones. Similar problem is with the news they read: news media read by leftists is strongly anti Brexit, so this exacerbates the problem.

This is not to say that Brexit changes will not cause problems for scientists based in the UK, but there is no reason for that to happen beside UK/EU being incompetent and/or trying to cause problems intentionally(so they can blame Brexit for those problems) or because they are using people as bargaining chips in their petty negotiations.

Again this may sound like conspiracy theory, but consider the example of China/US trade war where China is targeting certain swing states. And if you want to make Brexit look bad messing up with science is a good way to do that.

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    What experience do you have of being an academic in a STEM field in a UK university? And why do you think the good sides of Brexit (whatever they might be) would be good/neutral for British science, which is what the question ostensibly asks about? – Yemon Choi Jul 27 '18 at 21:22
  • I'll say one word: Galileo. – gnasher729 Jul 29 '18 at 22:00

protected by StrongBad Jul 24 '18 at 21:36

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