UK’s vote to leave the EU will have detrimental effects on scientific research


The prospect of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union dominated newspaper headlines in both Europe and North America for most of 2016. With a popular vote of 51.9 per cent, Her Majesty’s subjects supported their separation from the EU on June 23, 2016. Commonly known as Brexit, Britain’s decision shocked people domestically and within the international community, causing a European political crisis unseen in decades.

Following the referendum, the British Cabinet went through significant changes as Prime Minister David Cameron resigned within weeks and was succeeded by Theresa May. While prominent scholars, journalists and activists have addressed potential political and economic consequences of Brexit—such as a threat to the EU’s balance of power and the unknown fate of the British Pound—it is important not to underestimate the serious repercussions that Britain’s separation from the EU may have on scientific and technological research.

The Brain Drain

Surveying 907 active UK researchers before the June referendum, Nature discovered that the predominant opinion on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU within scientific communities was largely unfavourable.

Their colleagues on the Continent had consistent opinions, with 77 per cent of the 954 surveyed active EU researchers responding against the separation. The situation did not change much after the referendum as another Nature survey in January 2017 proved that 42 per cent of UK professors were more likely to consider leaving the higher education sector, with 76 per cent of non-UK European Union academics sharing those sentiments.

This “Brain Drain” fear does not simply stem from immediate funding problems for British researchers, but from the Parliament’s ambivalent stance on the non-UK academics’ immigration status. The threat of losing their rights to reside in the UK troubles more than 31,000 professors, lecturers, associates and researchers without a British passport or residency. While non-UK employees constitute only 16 per cent of academics in universities across the United Kingdom, the proportion is higher in science departments, as the jobs of 23 per cent of biologists, mathematicians and physical scientists may be in jeopardy because of Brexit.

Moreover, the biomedical field received regular funding from the EU and made significant contributions to the British economy, mounting up to £7.6 billion annually. The potential exodus of more that 20 per cent of researchers in this field may not only stagnate important projects, but will be detrimental to the state of UK universities.

Brexit and Nuclear Developments

While the general anxiety in the academic community over Brexit remains prevalent, it is important not to neglect the potential repercussions that the UK/EU split may have on nuclear power industries. According to Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the UK announced its exit not only from the EU, but also from Euratom—the pillar of the European nuclear industry. As a result, The Guardian and Financial Times exposed potential delays in the construction of Somerset’s nuclear power station, Hinkley Point C, after Britain announced its departure from Euratom.

Devoted to the development of “safe nuclear systems,” and the growth of European research infrastructures, the European Atomic Energy Community remains one of the most influential proponents of progress in safe and energy efficient nuclear power plants. Skeptics argue that quitting Euratom will not only delay the construction of Hinkley Point C, but will prevent proper inspections of the UK’s 15 nuclear reactors, as well as the safe management of radioactive waste.

Just like the projected “Brain Drain,” Britain’s break with Euratom is bound to cause financial troubles in the atomic industry centers for innovation. Indeed, of the £69 million that Britain’s Culham Center for Fusion Energy receives annually, only 12.5 per cent is from the UK with the remaining 87.5 per cent provided by the European Commission.

Aside from the financial problems facing Britain individually, splits within nuclear energy communities are quite hazardous for global developments of safe atomic power and scientific cooperation worldwide. As articulated by Dr. Paul Dorfman from the Energy Institute at University College London, “it’s bad news for the industry, bad news for opponents and critics of the industry as well. It’s a lose-lose situation, whereby the industry becomes less competitive and less safe.”

And this is precisely the most menacing possibility that cannot be ignored; while debates regarding the economic, social and political turmoil stirred by Brexit remain valid, both parties would benefit from a concise agreement on nuclear energy policies before the UK’s official departure from the EU in 2019.

Featured photo courtesy of the BBC 

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