The June 23 referendum in the U.K. to leave the European Union has triggered a backlash against British scientists in the 28-nation bloc, the Guardian reported Tuesday, citing a confidential survey of the U.K.’s Russell Group universities — a group of 24 British universities that includes Oxford and Cambridge.
According to the Guardian, the uncertainty over future funding for research involving British scientists has resulted in several U.K. academics being asked to leave EU-funded projects. In one case, an EU project officer — whose name was not revealed — recommended that a lead investigator drop all British members from a consortium, citing lack of guarantees of funds from the U.K. as the reason.
A university involved in the survey reported that at least two social science collaborations with Dutch universities have now been told partners from the U.K. were not welcome, while another “leading” institution said that there had been “a substantial increase in definitive evidence that EU projects were reluctant to collaborate with British partners.”
The survey seems to bear out the fears expressed by scientists both prior to, and in the immediate aftermath of, the referendum, when roughly 52 percent of voters in the U.K. chose the path of Brexit.
“It’s a disaster. We are so heavily embedded in Europe in terms of the funding, it’s going to be very difficult to sort out,” Nobel Prize-winning British physicist Peter Higgs — who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson in the 1960s — said late last month. “Not just the funding, but the way in which membership of the European Union results in the flow of people between different countries. ... This result puts their status in question.”
The United Kingdom has long been a science and research powerhouse in Europe. According to the Economist, the country, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the world’s population, has 4 percent of its researchers, and produces 16 percent of the world’s most “highly cited” research papers. This is, in no small part, due to the cash flowing into the country from the EU — a flow that Brexit would choke.
Between 2007 and 2013, the U.K. contributed an estimated 5.4 billion euros ($6 billion) to fund research and development in the EU. In return, the U.K. received 8.8 billion euros in direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities.
However, now that the British public has voted to leave the EU, the U.K. may also lose access to science programs implemented under the bloc's Horizon 2020 framework, which facilitates collaboration between, and fund disbursals for, research teams in different countries. Even if the U.K. chooses to pay to participate in the Horizon 2020 program, it would still lack the clout it has traditionally enjoyed in shaping the bloc’s research agenda.
“If you don’t get invited to the party, you don’t even know there is a party,” Joe Gorman, a scientist at the Norwegian research institute SINTEF, told the Guardian. “I strongly suspect that U.K. politicians simply don’t understand this, and think it is ‘business as usual’, at least until negotiations have been completed. They are wrong, the problems start right now.”