brexit science

UK research at ‘significant risk’ from Brexit brain drain, scientists warn

Some of the brightest scientific minds are leaving the UK, as they lose access to European funding in the wake of Brexit, SkyNews has found.

At least 22 UK-based scientists have decided to leave the United Kingdom, fearing that they would lose European funding amid stalling Brexit negotiations. 

Scientists and engineers told Sky News the UK's position as a world leader in research is at risk from "significant brain drain", as top academics are giving up hope of the government negotiating membership of the Horizon Europe programme and are preparing to leave the country.

After three months without a Minister for Science, Liz Truss has now appointed Nusrat Ghani to the position. However, senior scientists and vice chancellors are warning that the government is no longer committed to a deal on associate membership of the EU research association.

"Nobody told me I have to leave, but it wasn't a welcoming environment," said Moritz Treeck who leads a team studying malaria at the Francis Crick Institute in London. "I didn't want to take the insecurity of the condition of this research grant of staying in the UK and the implications for all the people I hire."

"Saying you want to build an economy and you want to be an international superpower and then facing inwards... I feel that it's a step back, not a step forward," he added.  

Under the 2020 Brexit agreement, the UK was to obtain associate membership of the prestigious £81bn ‘Horizon Europe’ programme, as well as other research initiatives such as Copernicus, the Earth observation programme on climate change, and Euratom, the nuclear research programme.

However, it was revealed earlier this year that the EU has been purposely delaying the UK’s membership as a response to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, a vital part of the Brexit deal. 

Currently, Brussels is refusing to resume talks until the Brexit-related disagreements are solved. The conflict has prompted the UK to launch legal action against the bloc and offer to match the EU funding awarded to any researchers who already have grants.

However, given the uncertainty of the situation, many academics are choosing to relocate to the EU and maintain the funding they have already been granted. 

“The situation for UK science has never been so gloomy, and things will only get worse,” Nobel Prize winner, Sir Andre Geim told The Observer, stating that he has "no hopes" for a resolution on the Horizon associate membership. 

Geim provided the example of a talented young Ukrainian-Russian postdoctoral researcher that recently turned down a position on his team, saying moving to the UK was now too risky.

These fears were underlined by Chris Gosden, professor of European archaeology at Oxford University. He has reached the final stage in a competition for a prestigious €10m collaborative grant from the European Research Council, which he believes could now fall apart.

“It’s taken years of planning to get this research going, and if necessary I will move somewhere in the EU to make it work,” he said.

Gosden said many researchers in the UK have been resisting job offers from abroad because they didn’t really believe the government would accept being shut out of a programme that nurtures so many important collaborations as well as delivering a high cash return. But he said most were now despondent, feeling “there isn’t much hope at all of association”.

His fears were echoed by Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Julia King, who chairs the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

"I think we will see a brain drain of our brightest talents going overseas," she said, picturing a worst-case-scenario. "I think we will see more of our best technology-based companies finding that it's easier to get their scale-up funding overseas to list on stock markets in the US rather than in the UK.

"It won't be instantaneous to the UK economy, but in medium to long term it will have significant impacts." 

The lack of funding and collaboration opportunities would not only hurt current academics but also undermine the UK's position as a centre of innovation and deter future talent from transferring.

Sir Richard Friend, a director of research at Cambridge University, added that “the ongoing friction post-Brexit” meant Britain was already losing its position as a “destination of choice” for top students and postdoctoral researchers across Europe.

“Losing these young researchers really matters," he said. "In 10 or 20 years, we will notice there isn’t the same talent around, and by then it will be too late.”

In a statement, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: "The UK government's preference remains association to EU programmes, but we cannot wait for the EU much longer.

"Successful awardees do not need to leave the UK - the Horizon Europe guarantee means that eligible, successful applicants will receive the full value of their funding at their UK host institution."

Under Boris Johnson the government committed to doubling UK research funding to 24 per cent of GDP by 2025. However, some experts are concerned that Prime Minister Liz Truss's spending plans may result in cuts to money to make up the EU shortfall.

In August 2022, a cross-party group of peers on the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee concluded in a report that the government’s international science policy has been "somewhat incoherent”. The report’s conclusions stressed the importance of Horizon Europe membership, and warned of a “risk” to the UK’s reputation, should it not be secured. 

In the past, countries such as Norway, Iceland and Turkey have been granted access to the programmes, despite not being members of the EU. 

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