U.K. scientists dreading the country’s impending departure from the European Union, known as Brexit, now face possible outcomes ranging from undesirable to potentially disastrous—with an outside chance of a last-minute reprieve. Two and a half years after a divisive popular vote to leave the European Union, against the wishes of most scientists, politicians must soon decide whether the divorce will be orderly or chaotic. “Everyone’s just holding their breath,” says economist Philip McCann of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, part of a team studying the implications of Brexit. “If it’s a disorderly exit, the consequences could be very, very severe.”
On 11 December, Parliament will vote on a withdrawal agreement that Prime Minister Theresa May reached with the European Union in November. It lays out the terms of a costly but smooth departure from the European Union, starting in March 2019. If the agreement is rejected, the United Kingdom could crash out instead, triggering chaos at the border, food shortages, and economic hardship. But a growing number of politicians, including former science minister Sam Gyimah, who resigned last week to protest the withdrawal agreement, are now agitating for a second referendum that might reverse the first one.
Ever since that referendum in June 2016, many U.K. scientists have lamented the loss of EU membership perks that Brexit will mean. It will end the free movement of researchers across the English Channel and Irish Sea. It could prevent U.K. researchers from applying to EU grant programs. And the country will leave the Euratom treaty, which governs the operations of the Joint European Torus, a fusion facility near Oxford, U.K., and give up a role in ITER, a much larger fusion research reactor being built near Cadarache in France.
Only a few U.K. scientists see more upside than down. Simon Willcock, a tropical ecologist at Bangor University in the United Kingdom who supports Brexit, believes liberation from EU regulations will allow the United Kingdom to set its own science-based public policies, including reforms to agricultural subsidies. “I can see the U.K. being more of a risk taker, more of an innovator,” he says.
If both the United Kingdom and the European Union accept the 585-page draft agreement, the landing could be soft. The deal doesn’t specifically address research, but it would minimize disruption through a 2-year extension of the status quo while future participation in EU programs is negotiated. U.K. researchers could apply for EU grants during that period, for example.
The European Union is expected to green-light the withdrawal agreement, which includes a $50 billion divorce bill and would require the United Kingdom to follow EU laws during the transition without any say in them. Those conditions mean the agreement faces tough prospects in the U.K. Parliament. Hardline Brexit proponents within May’s Conservative Party say it doesn’t offer enough independence. Other opponents include “Remainers” in the Labour and Conservative parties, who argue that even a soft Brexit would be too damaging.
A deadlocked Parliament could default to a no-deal Brexit, which would send the value of the pound plummeting 25% and shrink the U.K. economy by 8% in the following months, according to a report released last week by the Bank of England. Airlines flying between the United Kingdom and Europe could be grounded, because the United Kingdom would leave the European Union’s aviation regulations. New customs checks could strangle trade with Europe. An oversight committee in Parliament last week called a lack of preparation at ports for consequences such as massive backlogs of trucks “extremely worrying.”
All that would hurt research. Many reagents and other supplies, such as antibodies and cell-growth media, are imported. U.K.-based pharmaceutical companies are stockpiling drugs used in some clinical trials as well as routine medicines. Some researchers are considering whether they also need to stock up. “You don’t want to feel alarmist, but you have to think about the sustainability of your experiments,” says Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London who needs expensive and perishable cell-growth media made in Europe. But Oscar Marín, a developmental neurobiologist at King’s College London, says a supply shortage is the least of his worries. “To be honest, the disruption will be of such an order that not having the right antibody will be meaningless.”
A no-deal exit would also immediately void many research agreements. The U.K. government has said that if the European Union terminates grants to U.K. teams, the treasury will take over the payments. But U.K. researchers couldn’t apply for new EU grants. It’s also not clear whether they could continue to lead existing collaborations with European partners. The legal status of joint clinical trials—about 40% of U.K. trials include sites in the European Union—is murky, and how data might be transferred is uncertain. “We are very concerned about a no-deal outcome,” says Beth Thompson, head of U.K. and EU policy at the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical philanthropy in London.
Regardless of how the United Kingdom departs, it will have to negotiate new science agreements with the European Union. The European Union’s Horizon Europe program will fund $113 billion in research from 2021 to 2027, and the U.K. government wants to participate as an associated member, a status Norway and a few other non-EU countries already have. But associate membership will likely cost more than it brings home in grants, and some fear the government might trim the domestic research budget to compensate. As an associate, the United Kingdom might also lose influence over the program’s goals. “There’s no deal we could get that would be as good as the one we have at the moment,” says Anne Glover, head of The Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Nevertheless, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would benefit from maintaining close scientific ties, so the chances are good for agreements on funding programs, research regulations on clinical trials, and Euratom, says Venki Ramakrishnan, who heads The Royal Society in London. Speed will be crucial, he says. “The longer the uncertainty, the less of a player we’ll be in European science.”
To many, the largest risk that Brexit poses for science is the same one that threatens the whole United Kingdom: a recession, which would jeopardize recent large increases in domestic research funding and could cause a brain drain. The end of free movement with the European Union also has “huge implications for science,” says Naomi Weir, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, which advocates for a smooth and affordable research immigration system. A long-awaited government white paper on immigration is expected to be published this month. Ministers have said they will welcome foreign talent, but Weir worries about an increased burden on employers and an advisory committee proposal for a £30,000 minimum salary for all immigrants, which could complicate hiring of technical staff.
Some scientists want a do-over. “Brexit is simply bad for science,” says Paul Nurse, head of The Francis Crick Institute in London. “The best thing would be to go back and say we made a mistake.” But the politics of a second referendum are tortuous, and time is short. As the maelstrom intensifies, many researchers are focusing on their work. Nurse, however, urges more to speak out. “The scientific community really has to indicate why it’s so worried,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve done enough.”