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Scientists fear no-deal Brexit as deadline looms

Brexit is set to become a reality, but its likely consequences for researchers are still emerging. The United Kingdom left the European Union on 31 January, but has remained part of EU trade and travel agreements while the final Brexit deal is negotiated. On 1 January 2021, those ties will be severed—and a Brexit deal has yet to materialize.

The future of research funding, international collaboration, and wrinkle-free supply chains of lab stocks hinge on the details of the final deal, but those issues are “some way back in the queue” behind the sticking points of a trade agreement, says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield.

For U.K. scientists, the biggest question is whether they can be a part of the €85 billion 2021–27 Horizon Europe research funding program. Non-EU members can participate, but the United Kingdom is wavering over a potentially hefty price tag. The EU offer would see the United Kingdom pay in about £15 billion, plus a top-up payment if U.K. applicants win more than that in research grants. But because U.K. success rates in winning Horizon grants have fallen by almost one-third since the vote to leave Europe in 2016, it is likely to pay in much more than it gets out. Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, estimates the 7-year premium at about £3 billion. Although Stern supports joining Horizon Europe, she told a parliamentary committee on 22 October the price is too high.

The benefits of international collaboration and access to diverse funding schemes could justify paying extra, but not such an “eye-watering” sum, says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy expert at the University of Manchester. U.K. research advocates have proposed a cap on any premium paid into Horizon Europe by non-EU countries, but the European Union has shown no sign of budging since its initial offer in March, says Martin Smith, a policy manager at the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. philanthropic research funder. “I’m currently optimistic that a way forward on costs can be found,” he says, “but all this is moot if the wider negotiations collapse.” Wilsdon is more pessimistic and suggests Horizon participation could stall even if a trade deal squeaks through.

Another issue that could disrupt research collaborations is data privacy. EU negotiators may deem U.K. data protection laws inadequate because of its broad use of surveillance, says Rosie Richards, head of digital policy at the NHS Confederation, which represents U.K. health providers. That could disrupt studies including those from the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which is working with the European Bioinformatics Institute to track clinical data and changes in the coronavirus genome to establish whether they link to easier transmission of the virus or more severe disease.

Less data sharing will also make it harder for the U.K. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to approve drugs. The agency was a major player in the European Medicines Agency, which relocated from London to Amsterdam in 2019. In January 2021, MHRA will go its own way, and it is likely to have a heftier workload looking at coronavirus drugs and vaccines, says Olivier Wouters, a health policy researcher at the London School of Economics. Brexit, he says, “couldn’t come at a more inopportune time.”

New customs regulations could disrupt the flow of critical university lab supplies, says Helen Dodd-Williams, head of strategic procurement at the North Western Universities Purchasing Consortium (NWUPC). A supply gap in some stocks—such as the liquid helium used to chill MRI machines—would cause severe disruption, she says, while products like antibodies have a short shelf life and can’t be stored long in advance. Suppliers are developing contingency plans, such as routing lab supplies through other ports to avoid expected logjams in southeastern England.

No matter what deal emerges, Brexit is sure to change the flow of researchers themselves. EU citizens wishing to work in the United Kingdom will now need a visa, with requirements for a job offer, a salary above a certain threshold, and English language testing. The U.K. government is offering a new “global talent visa” that eliminates some bureaucratic hoops for researchers and technicians named on grants—including ones from Horizon Europe. But the cost of a 5-year visa for a family of four is nearly £15,000. “It’s really quite prohibitively expensive,” and might persuade researchers to land elsewhere in Europe, says James Tooze, a policy officer at the U.K. Campaign for Science and Engineering.

The visa requirements will also affect essential university workers, like building cleaners. NWUPC’s suppliers are helping European employees with the paperwork that allows pre-Brexit residents to remain, but in the future they might not be able to recruit that labor so easily, Dodd-Williams says.

Brexit talks are still ongoing, with stubborn disagreements over rules that would prevent businesses on either side having an unfair advantage because of labor and environmental standards, or state subsidies. But even if a deal is struck and ratified by both sides before the end of the year, many details will linger. If the United Kingdom does not join Horizon Europe now, it could still choose to join months or years down the line. And the fallout from the new immigration restrictions and customs bureaucracy will take time to unfold.

Flanagan says Brexit means a permanently different relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe that will demand constant shifts and negotiations. “This is what people don’t really understand,” he says. “It will never be over.”