Brexit could knock the UK from its top spot in science and research

I’m sorry Dave, we can’t go on.
I’m sorry Dave, we can’t go on.
Image: Reuters/David Moir
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UK scientists really didn’t want to Brexit. But now that the UK leaving the European Union has become a reality, they’re tallying up the cost.

Initial calculations indicate that the UK stands to lose around £1 billion ($1.4 billion) of science funding a year in the wake of the referendum result. Nothing will change immediately, and some research funding is tied up in multi-year projects of up to 10 years. But experts say that the UK needs a plan within three years to replace the money, as existing grants run out and the tidal wave of consequences starts to hit British science.

You only get what you give

Britain now ranks among the top five countries in the world for science, despite investing only about 1.6% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in research and development.

Of the UK’s total research spend, 10% comes from the EU, and critics say that success has masked a failure to invest in science and innovation. UK institutions grabbed £5.4 billion ($7.6 billion) in the last European funding round (2007 to 2013), second only to Germany in countries that benefitted most.

That remarkable track record is unlikely to be matched by an independent UK, and could even count against it. As many as 18 UK universities could lose over half their research funding. The newest universities are most at risk, but more established ones aren’t immune either. Almost a quarter of research funding to the University of Cambridge comes from the EU, and a fifth of the University of Oxford’s.

Projections suggest that the subject areas that already struggle for funding will be hit the hardest. Education, law and legal studies, philosophy, ethics and religion, environmental, information, and computing sciences get more than a third of their funds from the EU.

Brain drain

Over half of the UK’s impressive output of scientific papers are co-authored with international scientists, and most of those come from the EU. It is unlikely that such collaborations would stop, particularly for projects with longterm treaties like those at the world’s largest laboratory, CERN.

But restrictions on freedom to move and work across the continent will hit recruitment. Even with an Australian-style point system, which is designed to help skilled immigrants enter a country more smoothly, an economy facing recession and increased nationalism doesn’t exactly make for an attractive place to live, particularly when Asian countries are already making tempting overtures to the world’s top scientists.

Some researchers are already considering their options to find work elsewhere. A huge proportion of junior scientists only have short-term contracts. In an unstable industry, Brexit could leave a permanent scar.