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The United Kingdom will leave the European Union in March 2019.

U.K. scientists increasingly anxious about Brexit confusion

With the second phase of Brexit negotiations approaching, scientists in the United Kingdom are urging their government to clarify its position on funding agreements and migration of research talent after the country separates from the European Union in March 2019. At a “Brexit Summit” held today by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, researchers said uncertainty about post-Brexit access to EU grants and immigration opportunities are already causing problems. “A cliff edge is happening now,” said Alastair Buchan, the head of Brexit strategy at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “We are at the risk of sudden loss of talent.”

Meanwhile, the Wellcome Trust in London released a report yesterday calling for the United Kingdom to pay to participate in future Framework Programs, the main source of competitive grants from the European Union, as an “associated country,” like Norway and Switzerland; in return, the country should also retain a voice in setting framework strategies even after it leaves the European Union. “If the U.K. were to accept this report, it would be a reasonable place to start negotiations,” says Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of EuroScience, a research advocacy organization in Strasbourg, France.

One of researchers’ top fears about Brexit—that it will diminish their country’s historic allure for researchers from abroad—is already coming true. Michael Arthur, president of University College London (UCL), told the committee today that in the past, 30% of the applicants for a UCL research fellowship were usually from other EU countries; this year none was, “something that really quite shocked me,” Arthur said. As for academic positions at UCL, the proportion of EU applicants from outside the United Kingdom fell from 25% in 2015–16 to 20% in 2016–17. 

Naomi Weir, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, described several actions the government could take to improve the immigration outlook for scientists. In the short term, visa requirements should be eased and caps lifted for technical professionals. Eventually, the immigration system should be streamlined to facilitate scientific travel and residency. “It’s all to do with future opportunities,” she said. “EU nationals can come here, they just don’t want to.”

A cliff edge is happening now. We are at the risk of sudden loss of talent.

Alastair Buchan, University of Oxford

Sam Gyimah, appointed as minister for universities, science, research and innovation just 6 weeks ago, was sympathetic to the concerns about both funding and migration and said the government recognizes their importance. “The government wants to give you as much reassurance and clarity as we possibly can,” Gyimah said. He had no new details to offer, however. 

The report published by the Wellcome Trust yesterday delved into how the United Kingdom could remain involved in the European Union’s Framework Programs. (These include the €80 billion, 7-year Horizon 2020 and its successor, now on the drawing board in Brussels.) After consultations with more than 200 U.K. and EU research institutions, the report calls for the United Kingdom to apply to be an associated country with the Framework Programs, just like about a dozen other countries. In return for a fee based on gross domestic product, researchers in associated countries are allowed to participate in grant competitions just like their EU colleagues.

But rather than just pay and participate, associated countries should get a voice in setting the priorities of the Framework Programs, the report says. In return, the country should be prepared to fork over more cash than in the past—perhaps even more than it wins back in grants, the Wellcome Trust’s head of policy, Ed Whiting, warned today.

Norman Lamb, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, called the report “a really important contribution” and said that a research agreement should be an urgent priority, as scientists need to plan future projects. Gyimah cautioned that the U.K. government isn’t prepared to write a blank check for the Framework Program. “There is no ambiguity about the British desire to continue to participate,” he said, “but also we have to be clear that we are not going to participate at any price.”

The proposal by the Wellcome Trust stands a reasonable chance of success in the divorce negotiations, Tindemans says. “I don’t think the EU member states would see a problem if associated countries would have more influence.” Although associated countries must allow free movement of labor—a political red-line for Brexiteers—Tindemans thinks the European Union might be willing to compromise, pointing out that Israel is an associated country without free movement, for example. “I think there will be some room for maneuvering.”