In September 2018, when bioengineer Alicia El Haj took her lab to the University of Birmingham from a nearby U.K. university, the move was complicated by a larger shift: the looming departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, known as Brexit. El Haj, a leading researcher in regenerative medicine, has had to reassure potential Ph.D. students and postdocs from elsewhere in Europe that her EU funding will remain intact. Given uncertainty about visas after Brexit, she's tried to get them into her lab before 29 March, when the breakup is set to happen. Meanwhile, her lab manager is hustling not only to outfit the lab—German microscopes are on backorder—but also to get a 6- to 12-month supply of stem cells, in case trade is disrupted. "We have thought about staffing, grants, and supplies," El Haj says, "so that we can carry on if it all goes pear-shaped."
It wasn't supposed to be like this. After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union negotiated an exit deal with a 2-year transition period, during which EU regulations and access to funding would remain in place. But in January, the U.K. Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the deal. Without any arrangements in place, a "no-deal" Brexit could paralyze trade and damage the economy—and science.
"To crash out of the EU with no deal is one of the biggest threats that U.K. universities have ever faced," says Joanna Burton, a senior policy analyst with the Russell Group in London, which represents two dozen U.K. research universities.
Research supplies are an immediate worry. Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, has bought up a 6-month supply of cell media and other specialized materials. "I really hope none of this is necessary," she says. Rohn suspects the stockpiling nationwide is creating shortages: Some cell culture plates are now on backorder for the first time, she says.
Brexit also appears to be discouraging EU researchers from coming to the United Kingdom. The government was initially reluctant to grant EU nationals who were already present the right to remain after Brexit, and a proposed new immigration system has also raised concerns among scientists. "I do really worry about the signal Brexit sends, that people won't necessarily want to come," says Beth Thompson, head of U.K. and EU policy for the Wellcome Trust, a charity and major science funder based in London. The fraction of EU nationals applying for Wellcome's early career fellowships fell from 45% to 31% in the 2 years after the Brexit vote.
Funding is another concern. After a nodeal Brexit, U.K.-based researchers would not be eligible to apply for grants from the European Research Council (ERC) and fellowships called Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCAs). Over the past 2 years, these have provided €1.46 billion to U.K. researchers. "I don't think the academic community realized this cutoff would be so severe and sharp," says Ian Shipsey, who heads the department of physics at the University of Oxford, where 48 positions are wholly dependent on EU funding. His department's grant applications for EU funding increased nearly 75% over the past 2 years, as researchers accelerated their proposals ahead of Brexit.
The main U.K. funding agency, UK Research and Innovation, is discussing programs that could replace ERC grants and MSCAs, but the government has not yet committed to bankrolling them. Any U.K. replacement, says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy researcher at the University of Manchester, would lack some of the key attractions of these grants, such as their portability between EU countries.
Some U.K. researchers worry about their existing EU grants as well. After a no-deal Brexit, the European Union will stop payments to U.K. researchers. The U.K. government's pledge to underwrite these grants hasn't allayed fears. If the U.K. economy tanks, the government might sacrifice research funding, says Carlos Garcia de Leaniz, a fish ecologist at Swansea University. "It's not hard to imagine that science will be at the bottom of the priorities."
Researchers elsewhere may be reluctant to collaborate with U.K. teams if researchers there can't lead EU-funded projects, says Garcia de Leaniz, who heads a multinational EU project to map dams. Burton says major research universities report no slowdown in collaborative proposals, but Garcia de Leaniz says he feels a chill. "Very few people want to team up with leaders in the U.K." In late January, the Research Council of Norway published a warning about a no-deal Brexit and cautioned Norwegian scientists to "consider the potential risks of cooperation with British partners."
U.K. universities have been trying to preserve ties with European universities by signing agreements that facilitate student exchanges and joint research projects. One, inked in late January, links the University of Birmingham and Trinity College Dublin. El Haj hopes the agreement might allow her lab and those of her Birmingham colleagues to access EU grants, if they spend enough time in Dublin.
Despite preparations for a no-deal Brexit, Flanagan says some problems will be impossible to predict. The politics are also uncertain. May hopes to negotiate changes to her exit deal with the European Union in hopes of winning a new vote. Some Parliament members want a delay to Brexit or a second referendum. University of Sheffield astrophysicist Paul Crowther says a delay is the best remaining option, "so that we don't have this terrible cliff edge."