A Post-Brexit Brain Drain?

Huddle up, huddle up, the corpse of the EU-UK love affair is a sight to see! I doubt you missed the fight, but dont worry if you did, the second half is only just beginning! Soon we get to argue over our belongings, and decide what happens if we bump into each other…what fun. Don’t the fights leading up to the vote seem so childish now in the raw face of reality? It is hard to keep a level head on such an emotional topic, so I will leave most of the politics to another person. However, I wonder how many people considered the impact Brexit could have on British science? Most scientists were against a vote to leave, why were they so concerned? If you don’t know why, read on.

1.Because: Science just lost £1billion a year

That’s how much we’ve been receiving from the EU Horizon 2020 programme. Each year. In fact, that’s a few hundred million more than we give in return. Each. Year. So what now?

First option: we carry on receiving Horizon 2020 funding. It’s true, we could ‘buy-in’ like other associate EU members, such as Israel and Switzerland. The problem here lies in the amount of funding we will now win (not a lot), the voice we will have to shape Horizon 2020’s future (very little), and whether ‘buying-in’ is even an option to us (remains to be seen). Although non-EU member countries have done relatively well in the number of EU grants they have won, they have not done so well on the value of these grants. In the last round of funding these countries won only 7% of the total amount available. Let’s contrast that to the UK’s whopping 16% shall we. Yeah. Perhaps most important here is the issue of free movement. Following their referendum on immigration in 2014, Switzerland had their status reduced to ‘partial associate member’. Future funding from the EU was put on hold, and Swiss spending on scientific research has since fallen.

Second option: we go it alone, Brit-power! Israel and Switzerland are managing just fine, right? Promises were made during the campaign to make up the shortfall until 2020, but perhaps that promise will join the graveyard of other pre-vote promises? And what happens after 2020? Another thing, whilst it’s true that both Israel and Switzerland are scientifically very successful, there is a fundamental difference here. These two countries rank 1st and 7th in the world for percent GDP spent on research, respectively. The UK ranks a lowly 20th. In fact their percent GDP spent on research has actually increased in recent years, whereas ours has shown a steady decline. Put bluntly, we will have to find a lot more money than we have been so far.

Third option: private investment will save us! Foreign investors do currently account for 19% of what we spend on research, however this scenario is about as likely as a flying carpet, given the link between public investment and subsequent private investment. Honestly, we are more likely to lose private investment, at least in the short term.

2.Because: Collaboration allows better science


Why? Because by sharing resources, data, and facilities it means that rather than lots of labs trying to reinvent the wheel, they can work together to make the wheel of all wheels. This is particularly important for clinical trials, especially rare disease like childhood cancer. Working with other countries means we can find the patients for a clinical trial more quickly. It’s also very important for other areas of science, because the technology that allows us to perform ground-breaking research is now so expensive (tens of thousands of pounds and more), that sharing these facilities is sometimes the only feasible way to guarantee access to this technology. Collaboration is everything.

But would we really see a difference if we leave? Well actually, it seems we already are. Collaborations often involve a joint request for money, and since the referendum there have been many reports of EU countries pulling out of future UK partnerships. Probably due to doubt over our access to Horizon 2020 funding. Yes we could still collaborate with countries outside the EU, but we already do (the USA is our top collaborator), and there’s no guarantee further international collaborations would balance out the loss of the EU anyway. It’s true that not all EU science projects require membership (e.g. CERN and the European Space Agency), and collaboration might still occur, albeit probably without Horizon 2020 funding. However, many scientists have wondered why we took the risk at all, when 13 of our top 20 worldwide collaborators are EU states? Oh and another thing, collaborations within the EU often dictate free-movement within borders. That free-movement issue just won’t go away will it.

3.Because: We Need Them

Our top scientists are here because the UK has friends and money

Believe it or not but 5.8 million people in the UK work in science, 16% of which are from the EU. Will they be able to stay? We don’t know that yet. We do already hire from outside the EU, however there are more hurdles and costs involved with international employees, not to mention any potential immigration caps that may be in place. It isn’t impossible, but it gets more difficult. Perhaps a more important question will be, would they want to come here? With increased difficulties in funding and collaboration, and a “we don’t want you” atmosphere, perhaps other EU countries will suddenly become more tempting? This is not a far fetched scenario, as a similar situation has already happened in Switzerland.

So what happens if our international community dwindles, would this matter? This is a resounding yes, and that’s because research doesn’t happen in a bubble anymore. Gone are the heady days of the lone researcher racking up big discoveries like they’re going out of fashion. Multiple types of scientists are frequently involved on one project; with experts from many fields working on one beautiful tapestry of innovation. This is fantastic because different people with different backgrounds bring different answers to a question. But here’s the real kicker – remember that £1 billion we have been winning from the EU each year? Over half of that money has been won by EU researchers living and working in the UK. Oops.

4.Because: Things are about to get complicated

Changing the rules always is

On the one hand, we may gain control of which countries our products are sold in. This would prevent them from being purchased cheaply in one country, only to be resold at an inflated price elsewhere. Though this depends on the details of our new trading laws. On the other hand we are likely to see changes to the way new drugs are approved, as they are currently passed under one umbrella organisation – the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Though this depends on whether we pay another agency to approve our drugs, or if we set up our own. Either way, costs are involved. As is often the case, the small institutions and companies are likely to suffer the most here, as they will find it hard to absorb the losses in funding and increased regulatory costs. Ultimately though, we’re not really sure what will happen here yet. Things may get quicker, or slower. Prices may go up, or down.

Granted, not all EU regulations have helped, for example you may have heard of the 2004 EU Clinical Trials Directive? It didn’t work. Instead, both trial duration and costs went up, and applications for new trials fell. However, and this is important, this directive has recently been revised and it is currently being rolled out, with the intention of streamlining the entire process. It took time for the hefty EU wheels to turn, but the system changed.

5.Because: Science!

If you haven’t considered it before, consider it now

If you’re not sure how important this is, let me ask you first – have you ever wondered how good British science is? Our shores have delivered over 80 scientific Nobel Prize winners since 1901. We have given rise to individuals like Charles Darwin, whose ‘Origin of Species’ forever changed the way we would view the world; Edward Jenner with his small pox vaccine and Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, who between them helped lay the foundation for modern medicines. Then there was John Logie Baird who brought us the television, Frank Whittle whose jet engine allowed us to travel faster and further than ever before, and Tim Berners Lee who ushered in the age of the internet. That combined with new therapies to treat cancer, heart disease, and vital research on so many illnesses. Oh, British science is good! There is a reason we have been developing into a worldwide hub of expertise, but be clear on this, in this modern world it is our ability to attract the world’s best that has got us into that position.

So What Now?

Collaborators are pulling out. Researchers are threatening to leave. The battleground for funding is probably going to get a bit more messy, and right now, we risk losing that coveted position as a centre of worldwide excellence. It is unlikely UK science will be completely abandoned, we have far too high a reputation for that to happen, but doubtless it will take a massive blow. The uncertainty surrounding what happens next is certainly not helping, and decisive action needs to be taken. Quickly. We need to keep the money, and we need to keep the scientists. This means open borders, more public funding, and making sure we stay friends with Europe. We’re in this now, surviving is not enough, we need to find a way to thrive.


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