Brexit raises uncertainty over future of research in the UK

By Luca Peluzzi

Brexit could affect the UK science research since many academics are leaving the country because of uncertainty about their conditions in the future. Consistent funds from the EU could receive a cut resulting in fewer resources available for UK universities.

Statistics show that around 31,000 academics at UK universities are non-British EU citizens, and many of them can lose their right to stay in the country after the UK will finalise its deal with Brussels. Brexit has already begun to affect how academics in the UK see their future: many of them are deciding to leave because of uncertainty over funding, free movements, visas or concerns over long-term life plans. More than 2,300 EU academics have resigned from British universities over the past year, showing concerns over a “Brexodus” of top talents in higher education. According to new figures there has been a 19 per cent increase in departures of European staff from universities last year compared to before the EU referendum.

Many are suggesting that people will have the opportunity to remain obtaining a visa. For example, ‘Tier 2’ visa is designated for skilled workers, but the Russell Group — a set of 24 leading research universities — says that 5,880 EU staff, who represent the 26% of the institutions’ total workforce, earn less than £30,000, that is currently the cut-off for a Tier 2 visa. If “Brexit means Brexit”, this indicates that UK universities and scientists must prepare for movement within Europe to become more difficult.

But academic researchers at UK universities are largely benefitting from European Union funded grants. In fact, approximately 18.3 per cent of the UK’s funding from the EU goes to scientific research and development, a House of Lords committee investigating the impact of Brexit has calculated. Moreover, Britain is a net recipient of EU funding for research, taking in €8.8bn (£7.9bn) between 2007 and 2013, compared with contributions of €5.4bn. If the Brexit deal does not guarantee a clear effort to preserve the UK university excellence in scientific research, a reduction on the funding could have a significant impact on UK universities. Other figures show that since 2007 Britain has won almost 1,400 of more than 5,000 grants from the European Research Council, around 22% of allocated funds. The research funds have backed achievements from 3D imaging for regenerative medicine to the understanding of proto-galaxies to the latest advances in nano-science.

An important deal with Brussels was signed before Christmas, when Theresa May secured that EU citizens that arrive by March 2019 will be able to apply for settled status if they have been living in the UK for more than five years. Who has lived in the country for less than five years before the official exit date will still be able to apply to remain until they cross the five-year threshold. Even if the move was welcomed as a little reassurance by some, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, commented saying that “The Government now needs to develop a post-exit immigration system that welcomes European and international university staff and students with minimal barriers.”

“A badly handled Brexit risks damaging British and European science,” said Eliza Manningham-Buller, chair of Wellcome Trust, Europe’s biggest charitable funder of medical research. The Wellcome Trust latest report says that with the right Brexit deal it will be possible to maintain or even improve scientific collaboration through shared and increased access to more lab trials, data resources and excellent funding opportunities.

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