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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May shook hands with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker today in Brussels before announcing a divorce deal for the United Kingdom.

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Brexit agreement would allow EU scientists to stay in United Kingdom

The United Kingdom announced today that EU citizens living in the country can stay after Brexit happens in 2019—a key demand of the U.K. scientific community. The announcement will come as a relief to the many thousands of EU scientists who work in the United Kingdom.

“For researchers today’s deal offers much needed hope,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in London, said today in a statement. “Certainty over their right, and their family’s right, to live, work, or study under the same conditions as they do now will allow people to plan for their future.” 

The decision comes after months of tense negotiations with the European Union over the “terms of the divorce,” including the amount of the United Kingdom’s outstanding debts. The agreement is likely to be approved by the European Council on 14 December.

There are concerns about the fine print, however. After Brexit, EU citizens would only be able to leave the United Kingdom for 5 years before they lose their right to return. This could pose problems for researchers, says Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London and a member of the executive board of Science is Vital, a lobbying group in the United Kingdom. “Science is an itinerant profession, especially with the shortage of permanent positions for more senior academics.” And young EU researchers in the United Kingdom might not be able to do longer postdocs abroad, she says. 

Another part of today’s 15-page agreement that was greeted favorably is the United Kingdom's continuing participation in Horizon 2020, the major EU funding program for research, until it ends in 2020. The U.K. government had previously pledged to cover the post-Brexit funding of any grants that were awarded before March 2019, when the country is scheduled to leave the European Union. The new announcement means that U.K. researchers can continue to apply for grants up to the last minute. “So even if you squeak in just before the cutoff, you could benefit considerably as a U.K. scientist,” Rohn says.

The Brexit negotiations will soon move into an important new phase: the future relationship. This will determine, among many other things, whether the United Kingdom will be able to pay to participate in the successor program to Horizon 2020. (Several non-EU members, including Switzerland, Norway, and Israel, participate in Horizon 2020 for a fee.)

Another important unknown is the United Kingdom’s immigration system after Brexit. Researchers say it will be crucial to keep the flow of scientific talent as unimpeded as possible. But that won’t be easy, politically. “Anything involving freedom of movement is going to be really difficult,” Rohn says. “Because that was the whole point [of the Brexit vote]. It’s going to be a sticking point.”