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7 March 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 7:27am

7 threats from Brexit keeping scientists awake at night

Some research organisations are entirely reliant on EU funding. 

By Sue Ferns

The future of the UK’s world leading science and research is at risk from Brexit. If the government gets Brexit wrong it could damage the UK’s global research standing and ability to create innovative partnerships with our EU neighbours. Prospect, which represents over 50,000 members in science, technology, engineering and maths professions, has surveyed its science members about the forthcoming negotiations. The results showing clear views over the government’s approach to Brexit – almost nine in ten scientists and engineers said they were dissatisfied with government preparations for life outside the European Union.

Science is global. Many of the world-leading programmes in which the UK is involved cannot be scaled to a national level. We believe that the credibility of UK science, technology and engineering will be undermined if we restrict international collaboration. Our investment in developing such world-leading expertise must not jeopardised by politicians who ignore the evidence.

Here is what our members said:

1. Funding will dry up

“While the UK is promising to continue funding current projects and those granted before the UK leaves the EU, it cannot provide this funding stream on its own, nor will such funding be easily generated through additional collaborations outside the EU framework.”

– Dr Amelie Kirchgaessner, atmospheric scientist, British Antarctic Survey

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“Our entire organisation relies on EU funding, we work with the Eurofusion Consortium, and receive funding from Euratom. The Joint European Torus itself is a European facility by definition.”

– Unnamed engineer, Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

2. A skills gap may emerge

“In terms of recruitment, it is well known that UK universities teach to a very high standard and as such attract students from around the world. We have been able to recruit some excellent young engineers from across the EU and offer them a rewarding placement experience prior to recruitment.”

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– Toby Cushion, chemical engineer, Sellafield

3. Collaboration knows no borders

“Satellite data are crucial for weather and climate prediction. It takes collaboration and investment between the best international experts. Without it, climate modellers like me would not be able to produce the most skillful predictions.”

– Dr Chris Wilson, climate scientist, National Oceanography Centre

4. Scientists rely on cross-EU logistics

“Drilling and measuring major Antarctic ice cores is expensive, and logistically complex. It benefits hugely from cross-European collaboration. The prospect of Brexit has implications for how ice core science is done in the UK. It has also created uncertainty about whether we should commit time and resources to writing new EU proposals.”

– Dr Louise Sime, paleoclimate modeller, British Antarctic Survey

5. EU law protects the environment

“We in the UK have benefitted heavily from international collaboration, and the shared European vision of conservation. EU law has been central to our environmental protection…I worry that, outside the moderating influence of the EU, the countryside we love will lose out to short-term financial pressures.”

– Julia Coneybeer, planning specialist, Natural England

6. Impartiality will be at risk

“If we lose EU funds, it will be a massive blow to science. I worry that scientific community will lose impartiality because we will be more dependent on commercial funders.”

– Margaret McKeen, research scientist, James Hutton Institute

7. Headquarters will move

“Whether the European Medicines Agency can stay in London appears doubtful. Currently, we are told no, but I guess we will be a pawn in the negotiations. If we don’t, it may influence industry to seek alternative places to operate.”

– Unnamed researcher, EMA

Sue Ferns is the deputy general secretary of Prospect. Implications of Brexit for STEM: Experiences from the frontline is being published by Prospect on Tuesday 7 March. It is available online at www.prospect.org.uk.