British Scientists Are Flipping Out About Brexit

Britain is saying goodbye to the European Union, a monumental decision that's triggering some serious alarm bells among the country's researchers. Here's why they have a right to be worried. A statue of Winston Churchill is silhouetted against the Houses of Parliament and the early morning sky in London, Friday, 24 June 2016. (Associated Press)

For months, scientists and environmentalists in the UK have been warning about the consequences of a Brexit. And now it's actually happened. It will likely take a couple of years for Britain to negotiate its way out of the EU, but researchers around the country are already worried about what this divorce means to them, their jobs and the state of the British union.

No doubt, Britain's historic decision to extricate itself from the European Union is poised to have a pronounced effect on science funding, research, regulation and the environment.

"This is a poor outcome for British science and so is bad for Britain," declared Paul Nurse, a Nobel-prize winning geneticist, to a group of journalists. He said that British scientists will now have to figure out a way to "counter the isolationism of Brexit if our science is to continue to thrive", adding that science "thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers and are open to free exchange and collaboration".

Nurse is one of hundreds of scientists who nervously awaited the outcome of yesterday's referendum. In the months preceding the vote, droves of British scientists voiced their opinions on the matter, arguing that a Brexit vote would be potentially disastrous to science in the UK and the EU at large. Back in March, the Times published a passionate pro-Remain letter that contained the signatures of more than 150 researchers from the University of Cambridge. Polls showed that nine out of 10 university staff backed the Remain camp, and that 40 per cent might leave the UK should the Brexiters win. Stephen Hawking also chimed in, saying that staying in the EU is vital for Britain's economy and security, and that Britain risks being isolated.

Stephen Hawking worries that Britain now risks being isolated.
(Image: Microsoft/Youtube)

Academic institutions in the UK are now in serious limbo. Around 18 per cent of the UK's funding from the EU goes to scientific research and development. If the British government can't find a way to make up for this shortfall, that could lead to some serious job losses and the outright termination of certain research programs. Prior to the vote, the Digital Science group estimated that the UK could lose £1 billion ($1.8 billion) in science funding annually.

The UK is also in danger of losing access to some major EU research programs, including the Horizon 2020 program of research grants. That's not to say that Britain can't find ways to stay within these programs and others. Assuming that Britain still has the will and financial means to stay within these programs, it could still continue to work alongside its former EU partners.

Jonathan Butterworth, a British physicist who works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, says that the Brexit is "going to be very damaging", and demands that the British government come up with real solutions to ensure that "the level of research and education funding that was coming through the EU will be guaranteed".

In defence of the Brexit, Conservative justice minister Michael Gove noted that the money normally given to the EU by the UK could now be channelled into science. It's an encouraging thought, but one that will have to be translated into action. Others are hopeful that the Brexit could free Britain to do more exploratory forms of scientific research. An advisor to Gove, Angus Dalgleish, believes the Brexit is good for the UK in this regard in that it will remove some restrictive EU regulations on scientific research.

Another perk of EU membership is the freedom of citizens of member states to work and go to school in each other's country without restrictions. There's a fear that many of these individuals will either be forced out of the UK, or simply choose to leave. That could lead to a serious "brain drain" given that 15 per cent of all university staff in the UK come from the EU, and that around five per cent of all students are from other European countries. The University of Cambridge in particular could be hard hit as 23 per cent of its research scientists are from other EU countries. It's also not clear how the Brexit will affect British scientists working abroad.

"I hope that ways will be found to reassure all those non-UK EU citizens who work in science or the NHS that their futures are secure here, and that we will make sure that whatever happens the UK remains an attractive place for others to come and help take medical science and the NHS forward," noted Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in The Independent.

The Royal Astronomical Society is particularly concerned about pending travel restrictions:

UK and European science benefit from the free movement of people between countries, something that has allowed UK research to become world leading. Although for example membership of the European Space Agency and European Southern Observatory is not contingent on EU membership, these organisations depend on international recruitment made easier by straightforward migration between countries. We therefore urge the Government to ensure it remains straightforward for UK scientists to travel and work in EU countries, and for EU scientists to come to the UK.

Dame Julia Goodfellow, the president of Universities UK, said that her group's first priority will be to convince the UK government "to take steps to ensure that staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities in the long term, and to promote the UK as a welcoming destination for the brightest and best minds". She reminded Britons that "leaving the EU will not happen overnight -- there will be a gradual exit process with significant opportunities to seek assurances and influence future policy".

And then there's the environment to consider.

"The short answer to what happens next with pollution, wildlife, farming, green energy, climate change and more is we don't know -- we are in uncharted territory," Damian Carrington wrote in The Guardian. "But all the indications -- from the "red-tape" slashing desires of the Brexiters to the judgment of environmental professionals -- are that the protections for our environment will get weaker." Carrington worries that the plunging stock markets will "damage the huge investments needed to create a cleaner and safer environment".

As it stands, many UK laws and regulations are determined by EU legislation. It's not immediately clear which environmental protections will remain and which will be abandoned. Some environmentalists worry that Britain's departure from the EU will result in the watering down of environmental and climate policy.

"It is therefore essential that the government gives a commitment that, in negotiating the terms of the UK's exit from the EU, an equivalent or enhanced level of environmental protection and climate policy will be implemented here in the UK," noted the the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) in a statement.

The EU has a history of getting Britain's environmental act together, including an injunction to clean-up its sewage-strewn beaches. The same can be said for many protections currently in place in the UK for nature and wildlife, along with an EU-driven mandate to improve recycling and waste. There's now fear, for example, that Britain will scrap a ban on pesticides that harm bees and other important pollinators.

It's only been a few hours since the referendum, so reactions are understandably intense and distressed. As noted, there's still a long road ahead, and many of the concerns expressed by the scientific community are likely to be addressed in the coming negotiations. Panic is obviously not the way to go, but as many of these scientists have made painfully clear, the UK government would be making a huge mistake should they choose to ignore the needs of this crucially valuable sector of British society.

[Nature 1, 2, Wired, The Independent, The Guardian]

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    The UK sends £13 billion to the EU budget each year and the EU spends only £4.5 billion on the UK. So the UK is £8.5 billion better off by leaving the EU. Sure there is going to be some turmoil while the separation happens, but ultimately the UK will be better off.

      Ugh no it wont. If the UK (Well not the UK for long) wants to continue to trade with other EU nations, It will have to abide by EU laws. Norway had to accept open borders to be allowed to trade with EU nations.

      Brexit achieved nothing other than ruining their pound and economy.


        It's far too early to call the eventual result of this exit for the UK economy, anyone who tries to is no better than Mystic Meg. Those exiting for reasons other than ignorance, racism and bigotry, and there were other reasons, were well aware that it would be a long game.

        We may have temporarily 'ruined' the pound, while certain financial institutions take the opportunity to make money at it's expense, but it will settle. Bear in mind that the exchange rate against the AUD is still stronger than it was only 3 years ago, so if the UK is going under what does that say for the Australian economy?

        yup, Britain cannot trade with the EU anymore. It won't be able to get books, accept phone calls and British people will forget how to speak other languages.. and the cable holding the island will be cut free and they'll float off all alone into the Atlantic.

        Oh wait, the UK is the core of the world's greatest and most persistent alliance - the Commonwealth.

        No more will the EU pay subsidies to companies to shift operations outside of the UK such as happened with : Cadbury moved factory to Poland 2011 with EU grant. Ford Transit moved to Turkey 2013 with EU grant. Jaguar Land Rover has recently agreed to build a new plant in Slovakia with EU grant, owned by Tata, the same company who have trashed the steel works and emptied the workers pension funds. Peugeot closed its Ryton (was Rootes Group) plant and moved production to Slovakia with EU grant. British Army's new Ajax fighting vehicles to be built in SPAIN using SWEDISH steel at the request of the EU to support jobs in Spain with EU grant, rather than Wales. Dyson gone to Malaysia, with an EU loan. Crown Closures, Bournemouth (Was METAL BOX), gone to Poland with EU grant, once employed 1,200. M&S manufacturing gone to far east with EU loan. Hornby models gone. In fact all toys and models now gone from UK along with the patents all with with EU grants. Gillette gone to eastern Europe with EU grant. Texas Instruments Greenock gone to Germany with EU grant. Indesit at Bodelwyddan Wales gone with EU grant.

        just a small part of a large list of companies the EU gutted from the UK.

      That's not accounting for the economic benefits (and costs) of EU membership (free trade etc), which admittedly I don't know the values of, but the raw membership cost and direct financial return is a far too simplistic way of looking at it

    I voted to leave, but even I'll admit those numbers are far too simplistic.

    Scientists have a right to be concerned, but no more so than everyone else in the UK. No one knows how this is going to pan out yet, how the funds will be re-allocated, how long the economy will take to bounce back etc. This continued conjecture with all the negative 'what ifs', and none of the positives, isn't constructive. Want to be constructive? Take advantage of the low exchange rate and buy Sterling!

    All the financial talk is one thing - the other thing that little has been said about is that one of the major points of the EU was to create a more stable, united, peaceful continent, in the hopes that the world wouldn't have to suffer through yet another World War. The money thing will go either way but it it's hard to imagine this move would do anything other than decrease stability and safety in that part of the world.

      you're quite right blub Monnet was the father of the EU and he saw the problem came from people who voted in crazy people, so he decided that democracy and self determination was the problem, being too dangerous for the people to decide,and thus a ruling elite was needed.

      quote from Monnet.. “Europe’s nations should be guided towards the Super-state without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.”

      - Monnet , French Economist and President of the Action Committee for the Superstate, (forerunner to the EU and outspoken critic of democracy )

      He neglected to consider it was people, new to democracy, frightened and confused by choice who did not WANT to make decisions, who wanted to just get on with their lives who elected strong looking people who promised to take control , lead, and take care of all that hard thinking stuff .. like that the Germans with that confident Adolf bloke in Germany.. It is an ongoing problem too, when people grow tired of politics or too lazy to engage they tend to pick the loudest dude who promises to look after them - and thus the cycle continues. From malevolent monarchs to socialist elite directorates, dictators and on - look at the options in the US !

      Democracy can serve us, but only if wee accept responsibility and engage in it. That's partly why to vote you had to have served in the forces in some countries.. in fact that's why women did not get to vote n England.. when the women's suffragette movement petitioned for the vote (remember, not all men had the vote then either) the initial request was accepted - but it stalled when the women realized they'd also be included in military conscription - that was why they couldn't vote before.. not because they were women, but because they didn't 'serve their country' by fighting for it. Participation in politics and electing people came with a cost - but thrusting it on people who didn't care for it was more the problem than democracy it's self. well.. my 2c anyway..

        oops, and there we go! News today suggests the final push is underway to complete the superstate with the a push to abolish national autonomy, removal of borders, individual currency, army, law enforcement.. with all control shifting totally to Brussels as the capital. I don't know whether it's true that they've announced it but the media is reporting it. Curiously the MSM is astonished at this -I don't know why, it's been the plan for over 70 years..

        So a question, did the young folk who were crying after the UK left really want to buy in on this?

        The olds who had the EU foisted on them knew what the plan was, but were sold out by their politicians.. that they finally got the vote they wanted all those years back (and had the wisdom of age to know what the EU was all about) meant they took to it with enthusiasm.

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