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Uncertainty reigns in aftermath of the United Kingdom's Brexit vote

MANCHESTER, U.K.—Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. In the weeks since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the U.K. government has made it clear that foreign residents won’t be kicked out, and their legal rights remain intact—and that might only change after new treaties are forged, a process that could take years. But when the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom held an information session on Brexit this month, the meeting was packed and several hundred scientists and other staff crammed into an overflow room. “The general feeling was anxiety,” says Ian Walmsley, pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Oxford.

Researchers from other parts of the European Union, who make up 16% of academic staff at U.K. universities, are anxious about their status, and—like their U.K. colleagues—concerned about access to European grant funding and research facilities. Reassuring details are scarce. In a speech at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), which is the largest general scientific meeting in Europe and ended here today, a tired looking Jo 
Johnson, U.K. minister for universities and science, could only tell delegates: “I recognize the demand for further clarity on these issues and I’m working intensively with colleagues across government to provide it as soon as practicable.” He took no questions.

After the 23 June referendum, the pressure group Scientists for EU asked researchers about their concerns. Among the 
400 responses, 46 reported hearing about or experiencing xenophobia. And at least 
84 people were planning to leave the United Kingdom or know someone who is. “We are very concerned about recruitment and retention of academic and research staff,” says Paul Crowther, an astrophysicist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

Credits: (Graphic) A. Cuadra/Science; (Data) Higher Education Statistics Agency

The U.K. government announced on 
11 July that the referendum did not change the rights of E.U. nationals. Nevertheless, the message to foreign scientists must be stronger, says Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London. “They need to be reassured, if they are here and employed, they’re not suddenly going to be told that they have to apply for permission or leave.”

Larger political developments have added to the anxiety. The new prime minister, 
Theresa May, did little to comfort university-based scientists when she formed her new cabinet earlier this month: Responsibility for universities was split from research and placed in a different department. Johnson, who was appointed minister for universities and science in May 2015 and remains in the role, now has to report to two departments.

Universities are starting to take matters into their own hands. At Imperial College London (ICL), where 25% of staff and 20% of students hail from other countries in the European Union, the human resources department has set up 10 sessions from now until September with a law firm to explain how to apply for residency and citizenship. The university has also offered interest-free loans to help cover the cost of applications. “The biggest risk to our science right now is uncertainty and misperception about studying and working in the U.K.,” Maggie Dallman, associate provost of ICL, said in a statement. “We must keep shouting that U.K. science is open for business and help the government ensure that this remains the case.”

As for participation in Horizon 2020, the European Union’s giant, 7-year funding program, the E.U. directorate for research said on 4 July that U.K. scientists can still apply for and participate in grants while the United Kingdom remains part of the European Union. “No one should have any doubt about it,” Carlos Moedas, the commissioner for research, told a large audience at ESOF. “Horizon 2020 projects will continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality.” There is anecdotal evidence, however, that some E.U. researchers and managers perceive that U.K. involvement might now pose a liability in an E.U. grant application. Among the Scientists for EU responses, 
33 described disruptions in Horizon 2020 consortia, such as being asked not to participate. “It’s a chilling effect on collaboration,” says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy expert at the University of Manchester.

Some say the government should take steps to forestall discrimination against U.K. participants in Horizon 2020 grants. Before and during negotiations over Brexit, for example, it could guarantee to make up for any funding lost because of the separation. That way E.U. applicants would be assured that U.K. collaborators can bring money for the duration of a project. “We will continue to push for that,” Ramakrishnan says.

After the separation, the United Kingdom could buy into Horizon 2020 as an associate member, as some other non-E.U. nations have done. But some are skeptical that the government will replace much, if any, of the 10% of science funding that currently comes from the European Union. “I doubt if we will persuade the government to increase the money to make up for E.U. funds,” Walmsley says.

The scientific community is gearing up to push for the best possible deal once the divorcing partners begin discussing terms. And Ramakrishnan says he’s optimistic about future participation in E.U. science programs. “As one of the strongest science countries in Europe, we’re also valuable to the rest of Europe,” he says. Another reason for hope, according to James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield, is that in the difficult Brexit negotiations, participants will seek easy areas of agreement first—and science could be 
recognized as a mutual win.

With reporting by Tania Rabesandratana.