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With Brexit pending, early-career researchers ponder their futures

Brexit—the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which the country voted for in the 23 June national referendum—has plunged the U.K. scientific community into uncertainty. As an EU member, the United Kingdom has for several decades enjoyed access to EU research funds and scientific collaborations. Free movement of people has allowed EU researchers and students to gain valuable training and education in the country, and many have chosen to stay.

But now, as the United Kingdom seeks a national strategy to negotiate and implement Brexit, all of these opportunities are up in the air. Both the European Commission and the U.K. government have offered reassurance that, until the United Kingdom officially leaves the bloc, nothing will change. But nobody knows what the landscape for U.K. researchers will look like once the country’s divorce from the European Union has taken place, which could be as early as 2019, or much later.

The uncertainty is casting a shadow over the entire U.K. scientific community, but it is likely to be particularly hard on EU early-career scientists who need to plan their next career move years ahead and now see their rights to live and work in the country threatened. Here are a few of their stories.

Do I stay or do I go?

The country’s vote for Brexit, which was fueled by anti-immigrant feelings, “made me feel a little less welcome,” says Sabine Lengger, an Austrian organic geochemist who has been living and working in the United Kingdom since 2014. Nonetheless, Lengger plans to stay, both for professional and personal reasons: She is currently a research fellow at the University of Bristol and a lecturer at the University of Plymouth, and her partner is from the United Kingdom.

<p>Sabine Lengger</p>

Sabine Lengger

Jamie Quinn

But she knows that Brexit is likely to present some challenges. Once it is implemented, “there is a chance that it might get a lot more difficult for us [EU nationals] to stay,” she says. A greater concern for Lengger is how her ability to get funding when she becomes a group leader may be affected. “I am worried about how the funding climate is going to change in the U.K. and, if we cannot apply for EU funding [anymore], whether it will be replaced by U.K. funding,” she says.

Marie Bruser, on the other hand, has already made her decision to leave the United Kingdom when she finishes her Ph.D. in crop genetics at the John Innes Centre in Norwich next October. It is largely a matter of principle. “I don’t want to be in a country that doesn’t want to be part of the EU,” says Bruser, who came to the United Kingdom in 2010 for her undergraduate studies. “You can’t just look inwards and work by yourself as a small country, without partners. I’ve been brought up in an international environment, and I’d hate to lose that.”

Besides, Bruser does not feel optimistic about her chances to find a position in the United Kingdom now that the country is on a course for Brexit. When she applied for her Ph.D. studentship in 2013, eligibility criteria for non-U.K. nationals were already strict: EU nationals had to have 3 years of U.K. residency to be considered. Bruser now fears that U.K. funding bodies may further restrict their eligibility criteria for grants, including postdoctoral ones. “I think [Brexit] could impact my opportunities for finding a postdoc in this country,” she says. Moreover, Bruser, who is still undecided about whether to pursue a postdoc or go into industry, thinks that Brexit will decrease her chances there as well. “There is a lot of uncertainty and I fear that some companies are likely to downsize or leave the country. At least that is what they said before the referendum,” she says.

Devising a plan B

Estrella Luna-Diez, a Spanish agricultural researcher at the University of Sheffield who is currently applying for group leader positions, says that her plan A is to stay in the United Kingdom. Her partner and newborn son are British nationals, and the family has a house and mortgage in Sheffield. Even though she was very upset after the Brexit vote—“It showed me I didn’t know the society where I am living,” she recalls—she took heart in the reassurances she received from British friends, family, and even strangers on the street that she was welcome in the country.

Immediately after the vote, Luna-Diez considered applying for British citizenship in the hope that it could ease potential difficulties post-Brexit. But she eventually decided against it. “In Spain we are quite nationalistic, and changing nationality is not something I want to do,” she says. 

Despite her desire to stay, Luna-Diez, who is vice president of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom, fears that universities may have paused their hiring because of the financial uncertainties brought on by Brexit. Luna-Diez, who hopes to be ready next year to apply for a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to launch her lab, also worries about how her opportunities to get funding will be affected. “It is likely we [researchers in the United Kingdom] will not be able to apply for ERC [grant]s or other sources of European funding, [and] it is [also] likely that the funding landscape will get more complicated in the U.K.,” she says. With the country’s exit still to be negotiated, “it is this uncertainty that is making everything really complicated. We just don’t know how the U.K. is going to be after Brexit.”

So Luna-Diez, who wants to put down secure roots for her family, is keeping an eye on group leader positions in France and Germany, in addition to the United Kingdom. She is also considering a move back home, and she just applied for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowship to have the option to return to Spain. Wherever she goes, “it is going to be complicated to move my family. My partner also has a position at the university here, but we want to go where we can live well,” she says. With Brexit looming, “I now need a plan B.”

<p>Jakob Runge</p>

Jakob Runge

Georg Runge

German physicist Jakob Runge is also evaluating his options. Upon obtaining a fellowship from the James S. McDonnell Foundation, Runge could have gone anywhere in the world to do his postdoc. He picked the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London for its ample opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations, both within the United Kingdom and internationally. “Scientific life is all about exchange, and the U.K. has always been an attractive place for scientists from all over the world,” says Runge, who started his fellowship in February 2016. “However, in a post-Brexit U.K., this international competitiveness could be jeopardized,” Runge adds—noting that, had he anticipated the Brexit vote, “maybe I would have gone to a different place.”

As he prepares to apply for faculty positions, Runge is drawn more to the European Union. “After Brexit, staying in the U.K. would make me probably unable to take part in EU grants,” says Runge, who immediately after the vote experienced difficulties convincing potential EU collaborators to keep him on their grant applications. Ultimately, staying “would very much depend on how funding is reorganized in the U.K. to make it an attractive place to stay and [on future] accessibility to excellent students and postdocs” from abroad, he concludes.

Wait and see

Other young researchers prefer, and may have more latitude, to wait and see. French postdoc Jonathan Grizou, who just over a year ago started applying his background in developmental robotics to chemistry at the University of Glasgow, is focused on succeeding in his new lab. Right now, “what’s important is the work I’m doing here,” he says. Grizou remains optimistic about the future. Although he shares the concern that Brexit will harm the ability of U.K. scientists to get EU funding, he remains confident that he would still be able to stay and do good work in the United Kingdom. Ultimately, even post-Brexit, “there will still be U.K. funding for science,” he anticipates. As for the chances of landing a permanent position in the United Kingdom, it will continue to be “extremely competitive,” Grizou thinks, but that’s no different from all the other “big academic countries.” So he is keeping his options open, and is ready to move elsewhere if that is where the job opportunities are.

This position is shared by Guillermo Navalon, a Spanish paleobiologist at the University of Bristol who plans to finish his Ph.D. in 2019. He expects that his next move after that will be based on institutions and opportunities rather than a specific country. Soraia Rosa, a Portuguese Ph.D. candidate in cancer radiotherapy research who came to Queen’s University Belfast with a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship, also feels that it is too early to be concerned. “There is still 18 months of the project left and that is around the time the U.K. [has been planning] to leave the EU. Nothing will change before that,” she says. “After that, I don’t know. But I don’t think it will limit my options.”

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