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Chemistry Laboratory
Image: Fotolia/Tom

Brexit and science

Fabian Schmidt
June 27, 2016

Great Britain and the EU are closely tied together in the field of research - in the exchange of scientists, in financing and in setting common standards. What now? DW provides as many answers as possible.


How important are EU funds for British research institutions?

Even though Great Britain pays more into the EU than it gets out of it, one exception is in the field of science. The reason: Great Britain is a leading science nation and has highly reputable research institutions. Those institutions are able to absorb relatively more project funds and are able to put money from donors to good use. This can be measured by analyzing worldwide scientific publications: Among the most-quoted papers, one in six has at least one British author.

Overall, the EU funds its scientific research through the Horizon 2020 program, providing 80 billion euros ($88 billion) over a period of seven years (2014-2020). In the timeframe prior to this one, British institutions received a total of seven billion euros in funding.

What effect will Brexit have for British universities?

Leaving the EU will create a huge hole in university budgets. Some universities receive more than ten percent of their research funding through EU projects. The British government would have to compensate for those losses using financial means that it saves by leaving the EU.

However, there is huge uncertainty regarding the country's long-term economic performance. If Britain falls into a recession, any Brexit "savings" could quickly dry up.

For now, universities face financial uncertainty. The predicted annual gap: 930 million euros.

What will happen to ongoing cooperative research projects?

From here on out, the details of the UK's "Brexit" will have to be negotiated. But in the meantime, the valid funding-agreements between the EU and British institutions will continue - and on into the future as well. Nor will British participants have to fear exclusion from projects with other EU partners.

An open question remains, however, regarding the residence permits of researchers on both sides of the channel. Hopefully, the governments will try to find pragmatic solutions to ensure continuity.

What happens to British scientists at EU research institutions?

Many scientists who've spent numerous years at continental research institutions are seriously considering the option of taking up citizenship in their country of residence, says Annika Thies, a representative of the German Helmholtz office in Brussels.

The Institutes of the Joint Research Commission (JRC), a body of the European Commission, are all located outside Great Britain. However, Great Britain is involved in these institutions and will have to negotiate each of them individually.

Doctor with injection
Great Britain can relax the regulations for clinical studiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I.Zarembo

Employing Brits may be less problematic at other research institutes, however, especially if they have direct work contracts with the respective institutions and are not working there on the basis of a barter-agreement.

How will the cooperation continue at Europe's larger research Institutions, like CERN?

Research institutions like the Center for European Nuclear Research (CERN) have a structure that is international enough in character to provide for the unproblematic continuation of work by British scientists and for the participation of Great Britain as a country.

The reason: CERN is not an EU institution but rather a common European institution, which means it includes many non-EU member states. It works totally independently from decisions made in Brussels or London and adheres only to scientific principles (and not political ones). That includes its personnel policy.

The situation's similar at the European Space Agency (ESA), which is an intergovernmental institution that negotiates directly with member states about projects and funding at annual ministerial conferences. Some EU countries are only cooperating members, while some non-EU countries like Switzerland and Norway have a full membership.

What effects will Brexit have on students?

British students who were already on the continent before EU Referendum vote will have to make sure their residence status is clarified in time. Eventually, they'll need to obtain a visa. It remains unclear whether there'll be a visa waiver program for Brits who had been studying or working in Europe prior to the referendum.

In the future, British students will have to go through the same application procedures as non-EU citizens. One point that remains uncertain is whether Great Britain will remain in the EU's Erasmus student exchange program. That will have to be renegotiated.

Does Britain face brain drain?

In recent years, the British government has considerably cut back on research funding. At the same time, EU funding for projects has steadily increased.

This is one reason why British researchers often have very positive feelings toward the EU. Whether those experts will try their luck on the continent or stay in Britain primarily depends on London's ability to bridge the emerging financing gap. Otherwise, British universities may become relatively less attractive.

Is there anything positive about Brexit for British researchers?

In medical clinical research, Britain's exit from the EU could give new impetus to scientists. The reason: EU regulations for conducting clinical tests are too tough for some researchers or small institutions to meet.

Some rules are so complex, for example, that only large pharmaceutical companies have the ability to adhere to them. This has led to an overall decrease in clinical tests in the EU. Many smaller research projects have been effectively blocked out.

Laboratory of the JRC-ITU
The Joint Research Center (JRC) includes institutes of the EU-commissionImage: EU-Commission, Joint Research Centre, ITU

Should Great Britain relax those rules, the research landscape could develop more diversely. Also, in the field of genetically modified organisms, the British may relax some of the tougher EU standards and therefore make its universities an attractive place for researchers of those disciplines.

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