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The future of the Joint European Torus, the world-leading fusion facility near Oxford, U.K., remains uncertain beyond its current contract which ends in 2018.


U.K. scientists prepare for impending break with European Union

CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—For months after the United Kingdom voted last June to leave the European Union, many British scientists clung to hopes of a “soft Brexit,” which would not cut them off from EU funding and collaborators. But Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to trigger the 2-year process of exiting the European Union in coming days, has signaled the break will be sharp. U.K. researchers are now facing up to the prospect that they won’t be able to apply for EU funding or easily recruit students and colleagues from the rest of Europe. “People are bracing themselves for a bumpier and more abrupt landing,” says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

To lessen the blow to research, scientists and bureaucrats are already brainstorming about new funding structures and international collaborations that could make up for the lost EU money and brainpower. They are also taking some comfort in a major boost to government R&D funding, detailed last week, aimed at building up research areas that could bolster domestic industries. Yet much uncertainty hangs on what are expected to be rancorous negotiations with the European Union, covering issues such as the right of foreign citizens to remain in the United Kingdom and a possible exit bill from Brussels. “We live in a kind of limbo,” says Giorgio Gilestro, an Italian neuroscientist at Imperial College London (ICL). 

The stakes are high for the United Kingdom, which is a scientific powerhouse and a magnet for talent. Between 2007 and 2013, U.K. researchers brought home more than €7 billion in EU research funding, second only to Germany. Cash from Brussels made up nearly 10% of research funding at U.K. universities in 2013, an increase of 68% since 2009. The United Kingdom’s prominence as an international hub was made clear this week when a new analysis of mobility of high-skill professionals, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, found that the country was four times more highly networked than the average for Europe.

May has said repeatedly that maintaining the United Kingdom’s scientific prowess is a priority, but a more immediate worry to the government is industrial competitiveness, as a “hard” Brexit is likely to mean a departure from the EU common market. To kick-start or boost industries, particularly in biomedicine and technology, the government launched a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund in November 2016. It will spend an extra £4.7 billion on applied research, to be delivered in rising sums over the next 4 years, which amounts to a 23% increase in government R&D spending—the biggest since 1979. “I was flabbergasted,” recalls Kieron Flanagan, a science policy expert at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

Last week, the first details on spending were revealed. This year’s tranche consists of £270 million for research on robotics, electric vehicle batteries, and drug manufacturing technology. Another £300 million will be spent on fellowships for early- and midcareer scientists, grants to attract foreign scientists, and support for an additional 1000 Ph.D. students in fields relevant to the industrial strategy.

In 2020—the year after Brexit presumably will occur—the challenge fund will disburse £2 billion, exceeding the £1.6 billion a year the United Kingdom currently gets from Brussels for R&D. But some scientists fear that blue sky research will get left out. “It would be crazy to simultaneously boost applied research and allow fundamental research to wither on the vine,” says Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

Partnerships at risk

After Brexit, U.K. researchers will likely not have access to EU funds that have promoted collaborations.

CREDITS: (Graphic) J. You/Science; (Data) Scopus

One bright spot: The research community will have an influential advocate in 2018 after a reorganization of the six research funding councils into UK Research and Innovation. Its director-to-be, Mark Walport, was most recently the chief government science adviser, and will oversee £6.8 billion a year in science and innovation spending. “There is great potential for science to have a greater profile in government and [in] negotiations” with the European Union about the terms of Brexit, says Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a lobbying group in London.

Some urge recreating the most cherished aspects of EU funding within the United Kingdom. Grants from the European Research Council (ERC), in particular, are prized for their size and long duration, and because the work does not need to show societal relevance. The United Kingdom has received about £200 million a year in ERC funding—more than any other country. Another hope is to make up for the expected loss of talent from the European Union by easing entry for scientists from the United States, China, and elsewhere. “We’re going to have to recruit from the entire world,” says Venki Ramakrishnan, who heads the Royal Society, which is pushing for immigration reform. Skeptics say any loosening of visa regimes is unlikely when the government has vowed to reduce immigration overall.

A related approach is fostering non-EU international collaborations. Efforts are already underway: In 2013, the research councils signed a 5-year agreement with the U.S. National Science Foundation to allow scientists in both countries to submit joint proposals in social sciences. A year later, the United Kingdom launched the Newton Fund, which will spend £735 million over 7 years for research partnerships supporting economic development in China, Brazil, India, and more than a dozen other countries. But details are scarce.

Some applied researchers may be celebrating their bonanza, but many other scientists are gloomy. “The next 5 to 10 years are all about damage limitation,” says Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at ICL. “It’s deeply depressing.”