A conceptual illustration of one scientist standing on a cliff in the shape of the UK being separated from scientists on the other side
DAVIDE BONAZZI/SALZMANART

Split decisions: How Brexit has taken a toll on five researchers

On 23 June 2016, 34 million U.K. citizens took to the polls to vote on a simple, fateful question: Should the United Kingdom remain a part of the European Union, or should it leave? Nearly 52%—a majority of 1.3 million—wanted out, and conservative politicians vowed to carry out the people's wishes.

Sandra Arndt, a German biogeochemist working at the University of Bristol, couldn't cast a ballot. So, she voted with her feet. In 2017, she got a job at the Free University of Brussels and moved her family to Belgium. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that one of the oldest democracies of the world—one of the most tolerant, outward-looking countries, one of the most pragmatic and successful nations—would descend into such a dangerous political mess," Arndt says.

That mess is far from resolved, even though the latest deadline for Brexit is 31 October. Last month, Parliament passed a law effectively requiring Prime Minister Boris Johnson to seek an extension until 31 January 2020; EU leaders may grant the delay to give the United Kingdom time to approve a deal that would smooth the divorce. But EU patience is wearing thin as opponents in Parliament have repeatedly blocked that deal. And Johnson, who entered office in July on a pledge to execute Brexit with or without a deal, has said he'd "rather be dead in a ditch" than seek another delay. A general election may offer the only path forward.

The default trajectory is to crash out of the European Union without any deal. Economists fear a no-deal Brexit could cause a nasty inflationary recession and, in the short term, food and medicine shortages as trucks are delayed for days at the borders. The government is even concerned about civil unrest. For scientists, immigration rules imposed on Europeans would make recruiting researchers harder at all levels, and most EU research funding would immediately stop flowing. (However, Johnson has said he would fast-track visas for scientists, and the U.K. government has long vowed to take over paying for existing EU grants.) "A no-deal Brexit would spell disaster for the country," says David Lusseau, a French-born behavioral biologist at the University of Aberdeen.

For some researchers, Brexit is not just a looming threat: It has already taken a toll on their lives and their science. Statistics give the outlines. Last year, U.K. researchers were involved in considerably fewer EU research projects than in the year before the Brexit vote. Prestigious EU fellowships that give early-career researchers 2 years of funding to work in another country offer another ominous indicator. From 2015 to 2019, the proportion of fellows choosing U.K. universities fell from 33% to 22%. "None of this is good," says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield.

Troubling omens

In the years since the Brexit vote (top), U.K. researchers have participated in a declining share of grants from the main EU funding program (bottom left). The country has also drawn a smaller fraction of postdocs from a top EU fellowship program (bottom right).

2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 29 March 23 June 29 March 25 November 23 July 40% 30 20 10 0 2015 Marie Skłodowska-Curie individual fellowships *Up to 20 September 2016 2017 2018 2019* United Kingdom Germany France Spain Italy 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019* 12 14% 10 8 6 4 2 0 Horizon 2020 participation Boris Johnson becomes prime minister, pledging to carry out Brexit. European Union approves a deal with United Kingdom for an orderly Brexit. United Kingdom informs European Union of intent to leave, starting process. United Kingdom votes in referendum to leave European Union. Parliament rejects deal for third time.
N. DESAI/SCIENCE

But not all the news is bad. Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a London-based advocacy group, says that after many years of flat or declining budgets, U.K. politicians are significantly boosting science spending in a bid to strengthen the country's industrial prowess after Brexit. "We have broader and stronger political support for science than at any time I can remember," she says. In 2017, the government set a 10-year goal of increasing R&D from 1.7% to 2.4% of gross domestic product, the average for wealthy nations.

No one knows how it will all play out—or whether the initial bruises to U.K. science will turn into a deeper wound. "Like everyone else, I'm holding my breath," says Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen who holds a half-time appointment at the University of Cambridge. "These are the best research and intellectual environments I have ever encountered in my career, and I pray it will stay that way."

Here, Science presents stories of five researchers whose lives have already been altered by Brexit.

Preparing a university for Brexit

Uta Staiger, director of the European Institute at University College London (UCL), didn't exactly write the book on Brexit. But she edited one. Last year, Staiger—an expert in the history of European integration and the role of emotions in politics—co-edited a 293-page scholarly book titled Brexit and Beyond: Rethinking the Futures of Europe. She calls Brexit "the most pressing issue in the country's postwar history."

That issue has already reshaped her job. The day after the referendum vote, Staiger joined UCL's Brexit mitigation group—about 15 top administrators and managers who meet monthly. Its first priority was to reassure students and staff in town hall meetings that the university would support its international community. "We get quite emotional messages from staff and students," says Staiger, who speaks five European languages. Nationals from the other 27 EU countries besides the United Kingdom (EU 27) make up 20% of academic staff, a typical figure for U.K. research universities.

“[It’s] the most pressing issue in the country’s postwar history.” Uta Staiger
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By mid-2018, the risk of a no-deal Brexit was rising, and Staiger was spending several days a week dealing with the prospect. This year, the Brexit team ran workshops to help European nationals apply for settled status, which confers the right to remain permanently in the country after Brexit. The government had created an app for that process, but it only worked on Android phones, so UCL lent those to staff who needed them. Staiger herself, a German native, paid £1350 and swore allegiance to the queen to become a U.K. citizen, "just to be on the safe side."

She and other administrators also worked to safeguard research. To ensure EU grants would be underwritten by the U.K. government after a no-deal Brexit, details of every active research grant were entered into a web portal set up by UK Research and Innovation, the funding agency that would take over the grants. The group contacted all 80 UCL research labs to find out what supplies might be threatened by no-deal disruptions—mouse bedding, for instance—and to help arrange for stockpiles. UCL set up a legal presence in the EU 27, required for the university's 20 pan-EU clinical trials to continue after a no-deal Brexit. The Brexit team also cataloged more than 4000 agreements that would be affected by data-transfer regulations, such as the exchange of research data with personal information.

So far, UCL has experienced minimal effects from Brexit, Staiger says. Success rates for EU grants have stayed the same, as have numbers of staff and undergraduates from Europe. Recruitment of postgraduates has also held firm, although a fellowship in biology and medicine attracted no applications from the EU 27 in the first year after the referendum. The task for universities, Staiger says, is to stay connected with European partners. "It will be crucial to maintain the closest possible collaborations," she says. "A no-deal Brexit, in particular, would be a huge setback."

An uneasy departure

When he checks the latest news about Brexit, Mark van der Giezen's blood pressure still shoots up—but at least he is reading from a distance. In August, after 22 years in the United Kingdom, the Dutch microbiologist moved his family, including two teenagers, to Norway and transferred his lab from the University of Exeter to the University of Stavanger. "The whole Brexit thing has been an emotional roller coaster," he says, and the ride had become too wrenching.

Van der Giezen studies how microbes affect human and animal health, particularly livestock and fisheries. In 2017, he had become head of a collaborative effort on aquatic diseases with the U.K. government's Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (CEFAS). Recently, he helped improve diagnostics for the most problematic parasite of crayfish in Europe. He liked his job and life in Exeter.

“The whole Brexit thing has been an emotional roller coaster.” Mark van der Giezen
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Then came the 2016 referendum campaign, and "cracks started appearing in British society," van der Giezen says. Some foreign lab members were told on the street to speak English or go back to their country. "People told me, ‘Don't worry, you will be fine.’ But that made me feel uneasy. Is it because I'm white?"

Van der Giezen recalls feeling stung when former Prime Minister Theresa May said, "If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere." The process of getting citizenship for his children, who had been born in the country, also shook his faith in the U.K. government. For one child, doing so involved £1250 in application fees and a 5-centimeter stack of paperwork, including more than 20 years of financial records dredged from a bank archive.

In 2018, because of Brexit, the CEFAS facility lost its status as the EU Reference Laboratory for Fish and Crustacean Diseases, and the European Union transferred the role to a lab in Denmark. Six other reference labs, as well as the European Medicines Agency, left the country. It felt like a sign of turmoil to come.

At Exeter, van der Giezen and colleagues were told to keep applying for EU funding because the U.K. government said it would pay to keep successful EU grants going if they were cut off in a no-deal Brexit. But like many others, van der Giezen was skeptical that the government could afford to keep that promise. "I would not like to be in the position of opening my email on a Monday morning and getting a message from the EU and it says your funding has been cut off. And then you have to look your postdoc in their eye and say, ‘Maybe you don't have a job.’"

Van der Giezen made a list of countries he'd rather live in—those with functioning parliamentary democracies, such as Germany and Switzerland, he says—applied for university jobs, and accepted the position in Norway. The move was trying. Because Norway is not in the European Union, customs rules required that every piece of imported lab equipment be listed with date of purchase, purchase price, and current value. He has yet to sell his house in Exeter because the initial buyer backed out.

Norway has positives: It is a wealthy country with beautiful scenery, nearby research opportunities in aquaculture, and an international community drawn by the country's oil industry. To offset the higher cost of living, Stavanger offered a 60% pay raise. Van der Giezen says he is optimistic about his prospects for research, but also clear-eyed about what he has left behind. "The U.K. is a scientific hotbed," he says.

Staying away

Brexit convinced James Wasmuth not to go home. He grew up in the United Kingdom, near Bristol, and he and his wife earned Ph.D.s at the University of Edinburgh, where he designed software to interpret genomic data from parasitic worms. They moved to Canada in 2006 as postdocs and won faculty positions at the University of Calgary. With a postdoc and students, Wasmuth studies worm evolution. The lab also looks for drugs to control the worms, a major problem for the cattle industry. Last year, he applied for a job in the Cambridge, U.K., area; his wife considered looking for a biotech job there. The work was appealing, and the move would bring the family closer to his parents and in-laws, who live in France.

“We kept thinking:‘What’s the future?’” James Wasmuth
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He received an offer, but after a trip to the United Kingdom, he turned it down. The job would have given him the chance to work with leaders in genomics and bioinformatics, but he and his wife had doubts about moving. "We kept thinking, ‘What's the future? What will it be like in 10 years?’" Although the Cambridge region voted strongly to remain in the European Union, Wasmuth and his wife felt uneasy when visiting his parents in a small town. "The undertones were unfriendly. You'd hear people being a bit spiteful," he recalls. He and his wife wondered whether they wanted to raise their young daughters in the United Kingdom. "This whole divisiveness isn't healthy."

The possibility of a post-Brexit recession—and doubts that the country would remain flush enough to fully fund science—also factored into Wasmuth's decision. So did worries that it would be hard to lure grad students and postdocs to a U.K. lab.

Overall, U.K. universities are still doing well at recruiting faculty, according to government figures. But the number of new Ph.D. students arriving at major research universities from the EU 27 dropped by 9% from 2016 to 2017, and lab leaders at even the most prestigious institutions describe unprecedented difficulty in attracting European postdocs. Wasmuth says graduate school friends of his who are now U.K. academics live with extra stress: "Their anxiety levels are 10-fold higher than mine."

Betting on the United Kingdom

Isabel Rosa, a Portuguese landscape ecologist, weighed the prospect of her first permanent job against concerns about Brexit—and took the plunge. In spring 2018, while finishing a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowship in Leipzig, Germany, she had applied for five positions and got two offers. She took the one in the United Kingdom, at Bangor University. "The position here in Wales was exactly what I would like to be doing in academia."

“There are these dark clouds always over our heads.” Isabel Rosa
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Rosa builds computer models of changes in land use, an interest sparked by Portugal's frequent wildfires. For her Ph.D., at Imperial College London, she had developed a model to predict deforestation in the Amazon on the basis of historical patterns of land use and socioeconomic factors such as investment in protected areas, roads, or agriculture. She has since worked to generalize the model, one of only a few to predict both where and how fast land use will change.

The job in Bangor matched her interests and offered 3 years of startup funding. Recently, she sent a proposal to the Natural Environment Research Council to study reforestation in Wales, a way to slow climate change. She has also submitted proposals to Horizon 2020, the European Union's main funding program.

Rosa says she has never felt unwelcome. "I love living in the U.K. and my job here, and I'd be happy to stay forever," she says. But when she visits family in Portugal, she makes a point of returning with olive oil. Her only complaint about the United Kingdom is the food.

That and Brexit. "It's hard to be optimistic, especially under a no-deal Brexit scenario," she says. In addition to professional anxieties—access to EU funding and collaborations—Rosa wonders whether a no-deal Brexit will make it hard to travel to Europe with her dog. Sometimes, Rosa says, she feels she has traded the uncertain future of a postdoc for the uneasiness of being a scientist in Brexit Britain. "There are these dark clouds always over our heads."

Mourning lost ties

Ornella Corazza, an Italian scientist who studies addiction at the University of Hertfordshire, had spent more than 10 years in the United Kingdom before the Brexit vote. "After the referendum, I felt very demoralized," she says. "I didn't feel valued in this country." Her university helped her get U.K. citizenship, but her scientific connections to Europe began to fray. For the first time, her grant proposals to the European Union were rejected. She never knew whether that was because of Brexit. This summer, however, brought a clear signal.

“[The United Kingdom] isalready losing its leadership...” Ornella Corazza
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Corazza takes part in a project funded by European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST). The €520,000 grant supports dozens of partners studying problematic uses of the internet, such as excessive video gaming. On 2 April, COST told all U.K. coordinators to transfer leadership of the grants to a partner in another nation, citing legal constraints that would prevent the European Union from sending money to the United Kingdom after a no-deal Brexit.

The overall project leader, psychiatrist Naomi Fineberg, also at the University of Hertfordshire, handed the reins to colleagues in Spain. That change rankled Corazza, who points out that leaders of large research projects tend to get more grant money as well as a chance to network widely and build leadership skills. "It's your idea. It's your vision," Corazza says. "It's extremely frustrating when it's taken away."

U.K. researchers have long done well in securing such positions. But the fraction of Horizon 2020 collaborations headed by U.K. scientists fell from 12% in 2015 to 6% this year, by far the largest drop among the six countries that coordinate the most projects.

Several U.K. scientists say invitations to join EU consortia have dried up. Some researchers, like Corazza, no longer bother applying for EU grants, because they don't know whether the United Kingdom will be eligible. Instead, Corazza is expanding her collaborations into the United States and elsewhere. But that doesn't diminish her sense of loss from weakening ties to Europe.

The United Kingdom, Corazza says, "is already losing its leadership, and it will be just one of many countries that does excellent research."