Webinar Report: Pursuing science in an uncertain world

What impact is Brexit having on researchers in the UK?


Emmanuelle Vire, Junior Team Leader, UCL Institute of Neurology, and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.


Laura Wilton, Senior Policy Advisor, The Royal Society; Alison Smith, Professor of Plant Biochemistry, University of Cambridge; Lotte de Winde, Postdoctoral Fellow, MCR Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology; and Tessa de Roo, STM Journal Editor.

The United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union in March 2019. What will the consequences be for science?

Uncertainty reigns

At present little is known about how the UK's relationship with the EU will change after Brexit. However, this uncertainty is already starting to affect UK-based researchers and institutes because applying for funding and jobs can take many months. But, as Laura Wilton explains, the Royal Society is working with the UK government and international partners to ensure that the concerns and needs of researchers are represented during the Brexit negotiations. Their focus is on three main areas: mobility and collaboration, funding, and regulation.

Science is still international

Regardless of what happens, UK-based researchers will still benefit from working on international projects. Alison Smith has found that Brexit has not affected her relationships with her existing collaborators: “They want to carry on collaborating with me and with other colleagues in Britain”.

Within the UK, researchers can also do their part to show that they value their EU colleagues. “Being open and welcoming is something that needs to be re-emphasised again and again,” says Wilton. Emmanuelle Vire agrees: since the referendum result “Many [EU nationals] that I’ve been talking to feel less welcome […] and that their contributions are less valued”.

Should I stay or should I go?

Anecdotally, some EU nationals are making plans to leave the UK. It is difficult to know to what extent these decisions are linked to Brexit, as international mobility is a central to the careers of many researchers. Other factors may also play a role. Although the referendum result was the catalyst for Tessa de Roo to leave the UK, where she had lived for eight years, the increasing cost of living meant she was already considering a move back to the Netherlands.

Lotte de Winde decided to move in the opposite direction – from the Netherlands to the UK – in the week of the referendum. Although shocked by the result, her excitement about the lab she was joining overrode any concerns. She has not yet experienced any problems as a result of Brexit, but the uncertainty of what will happen when the UK leaves the EU means she cannot make any long-term plans.

In the words of Vire, “science is full of uncertainties”, from the outcome of an experiment to the career path ahead – Brexit is another addition to the list.

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