A historic defeat for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has raised the odds that the United Kingdom will crash out of the European Union in March, a prospect that scientists dread for its potential for disruption to research collaborations and the economy. On 15 January, Parliament roundly rejected May’s deal with the European Union, which lays out the terms for an orderly withdrawal. What happens next is unknown.
“Yesterday’s unprecedented vote makes the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal even more likely,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London, in a statement. “A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for British science and innovation and I urge our elected representatives to put the interests of the country first and get a new plan to prevent this catastrophic outcome.”
After a 2016 referendum, in which a majority of 51.9% voted to leave Europe, May invoked Article 50 of the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon. This action set 29 March as the date of departure. In November 2018, May’s negotiators reached an agreement with the European Union over the terms of the departure, spelling out the United Kingdom’s remaining financial obligations to the European Union and specifying a 2-year period to smooth the transition.
As expected, Parliament has rejected this deal. Proponents of Brexit, for example, say the deal keeps too many ties to the European Union. May must return to Parliament within 3 days to present an alternative. But given the European Union’s negotiating stance, there is little she can do to make the deal more palatable to its opponents. With Parliament deadlocked, some observers say a second referendum is needed to allow the people to vote on the deal and additional options. Others suggest a general election should be called. If nothing happens, the United Kingdom will by default leave without a deal.
The consequences for the nation, including scientists, could be severe. The economy is predicted to take a hit and could remain hindered for years—with possible ramifications for funding of science. Without adequate preparations at the border, imports could slow to a crawl. Some scientists fear this could lead to shortages of crucial reagents or other laboratory supplies.
In the event of a no-deal exit, the ability of U.K. researchers to apply for EU funding would immediately cease, and collaborations on international clinical trials and other research projects could also be affected.