The momentous result of the United Kingdom's referendum on membership in the European Union could have profound impacts on its science and research communities.
Most of the scientists who have reacted to the decision to leave the E.U. have expressed shock and dismay, not least because the U.K. has been received a bigger share of research funding than most of the other member states.
According to a report by the U.K. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology earlier this year, nearly one-fifth (18.3 percent) of funding from the E.U. to the U.K. is spent on research and development.
British researchers have been able to bid for funding through regular multi-year initiatives aimed at the member states. Almost 80 billion euros ($88 billion) has been earmarked for Horizon 2020, for example—the biggest-ever E.U. research and innovation program—for the period between 2014 and 2020.
But the eligibility of researchers at British institutions to participate in Horizon 2020 projects is now uncertain, even though the U.K.’s official departure from the E.U. will not be completed for at least two years, under the rules set out under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Also under threat is the U.K.’s membership in the European Research Area, which promotes collaboration between member states and with the European Commission.
The official Vote Leave campaign, which made the case for the British E.U. exit, or "Brexit," argued that U.K. researchers would benefit by receiving some of the re-directed money that the U.K. has been paying to the E.U.
The Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, however, pointed out that this money had been pledged for many other uses as well, particularly the National Health Service, so it is not clear to what extent U.K. researchers will receive more money after Brexit than they have before.
The Vote Leave campaign also suggested that British researchers would benefit by no longer being subjected to E.U. regulations, including around the conduct of clinical trials.
However, while the 2004 E.U. Clinical Trials Directive had been criticized by businesses and universities for creating unnecessary administrative burdens, its revision in 2012—based on advice from researchers—seems to have reduced and eliminated many of the problems.
But potentially the biggest impact of Brexit on research is likely to be how it affects the flow of talent to and from the U.K. The Vote Leave campaign focused primarily on fears about immigration, so this could signal a potentially very damaging reduction in the number of researchers from other countries who choose to study and work in the U.K.
When Brexit is complete, citizens of the other 27 member states are unlikely to have the automatic right to work and live in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is possible that the U.K. will introduce immigration policies that would allow qualified researchers to enter. However, the negative rhetoric around immigration may make the U.K. seem an unwelcoming and unattractive place for overseas researchers to pursue their work, even if the rules do allow it.
And if the U.K. discovers that it is difficult to attract high-quality researchers from abroad, it will also find it more difficult to retain its best home-grown minds. Successful modern science is based on the principles of openness and collaboration that are the antithesis of the "Little England" attitude of many campaigners who promoted Brexit.
In addition, many international businesses and companies that carry out research and development are based in the U.K. because it helps to access the European Economic Area. If, as seems likely, the U.K. leaves the EEA as well as the E.U., many companies may choose to relocate their operations to another member state.
The Vote Leave campaign suggested that many companies may be attracted to set up in the U.K. once it is free of the obligations of E.U. regulations, but they were unable to offer any specific examples to support such claims.
Most authoritative analyses of the economic impacts of Brexit suggest that it will seriously damage growth, and possibly lead to recession in the U.K. British research is unlikely to be able to escape such consequences, further reducing opportunities.
Above all else, Brexit will mean many years of uncertainty for researchers as the U.K. seeks to renegotiate its relationships not just with the other 27 member states, but also with all the countries which had established links with Britain through the E.U.
Polls reveal that voters with university qualifications were much more likely to support remaining in the E.U. It is probable, therefore, that the overwhelming majority of researchers have found themselves on the losing side in the referendum. Coupled with the uncertainty and the expectations of potential isolation, fewer opportunities and less funding, this could deal a devastating blow to the morale of researchers in the U.K.
Given all this, it is hard to feel optimistic about the future of the U.K.’s research base after Brexit. And if Britain’s research base is harmed and undermined, it could have devastating consequences for the U.K.’s future prosperity and well-being.