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New U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson enters 10 Downing Street after his inaugural speech.

REUTERS/Hannah McKay

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hardline Brexit stance stokes fears for scientists

The twisted tale of the United Kingdom’s planned withdrawal from the European Union has taken a perilous turn. Boris Johnson, a charismatic and incautious politician with scant public views on science, became U.K. prime minister last week. He immediately packed his Cabinet with ministers pledging to exit the European Union by a 31 October deadline, even without a deal in place for an amicable divorce—the “no-deal Brexit” that economists predict would cause a recession and scientists say would cause additional hardships for research. Although no-deal now seems more likely than before, Johnson has touted the benefits of science and may be open to post-Brexit immigration reforms that U.K. scientists want. “This is a moment of both opportunity and risk,” says Beth Thompson, the EU policy director for the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical charity in London. 

U.K. scientists have overwhelmingly opposed Brexit, in part because they do so well winning grants and recruiting talent from the European Union. The previous prime minister, Theresa May, resigned when Parliament wouldn’t approve a deal she had negotiated that would have included a 2-year transition to preserve existing arrangements for travel, regulations, and grants. Last week, Johnson won the Conservative Party vote to replace May, but Parliament remains deadlocked, and he may need to call a general election in a risky attempt to win enough support to deliver Brexit. “A lot more uncertainty and chaos has been introduced into the system,” says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy expert at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

Some order comes with Jo Johnson, Boris’s brother, who returns as science minister, a position he held from 2016 to 2018. “Having Jo there is a reassurance,” says Martin Smith, policy manager at the Wellcome Trust. “He’s a competent and intelligent minister.” While in that office, Jo Johnson pushed legislation that created U.K. Research and Innovation, a new funding agency that brought together the government’s research councils.

Boris Johnson, in contrast, does not have much of a track record on science. After studying classics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, he became a Euroskeptic journalist. He was fired from his first job for making up a quote. While mayor of London from 2008 to 2015, he promoted policies to reduce climate emissions, although later, as a member of Parliament, he voted against support for carbon capture and storage technology. As mayor, he also helped start MedCity, an initiative that promotes investment in science and technology in London. “He really was supporting London as a research hub,” says Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a nonprofit based in London.

In his inaugural speech last week, Johnson cited the “extraordinary” U.K. bioscience sector and pledged to ditch European rules that he says have hampered the development of genetically modified crops. He said the nation should develop its own multibillion-dollar GPS satellite system, presumably a response to the EU plan to eliminate the ability of the U.K. government to tap into a secure signal from the European Galileo GPS system. The new prime minister also called for tax reform to increase incentives for companies to invest in research.

James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, wonders how these aspirations will fare when competing with pledges Johnson has made for schools, police, and hospitals. The new government’s priorities will be revealed in its budget plans, which may be released before the Brexit deadline.

U.K. researchers are feeling more optimistic that any future immigration policy won’t hinder foreign scientists from coming. May’s government had a target of no more than 100,000 immigrants per year, which Johnson has now scrapped. “That’s a good sign,” says Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London. Johnson has also backed the idea of a points-based merit system for visas, which could benefit scientists. “The devil will be in the details,” Ramakrishnan says.

Johnson has said he will ramp up government preparations for no-deal Brexit. Some researchers had already been stockpiling perishable supplies. “I believe now that we are all much more prepared if we don’t get a deal before October,” says Alicia El Haj, a bioengineer at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom who has laid in extra reserves of stem cells for her lab.

Still, a big question is whether the U.K. government can replace EU research funding opportunities. The former science minister, Chris Skidmore, commissioned an external review, due next month, on how the U.K. government could create an alternative to the European Union’s main funding scheme, Horizon Europe, which includes coveted grants handed out by the European Research Council (ERC). “I cannot see that any U.K. scheme will be capable of replicating the prestige and the success of the ERC,” says Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and a former member of the ERC council.

The continued uncertainty is taking a toll on the United Kingdom’s European citizens and potential immigrants from the continent alike, whether they are investors, entrepreneurs, or scientists, Ramakrishnan says. “All of them are anxious or holding back.” According to an analysis in January by the Russell Group, a consortium of major U.K. research universities, the number of graduate students coming to these universities from other EU countries fell 9% from the previous academic year.