Scatterings image

[Getty Images]

After more than 40 years as part of the European Union, the U.K. is set to become the first member state to leave the economic and political partnership—on 29 March 2019, the U.K. will “Brexit.” Yet, with just over three months until B-Day, the notoriously cloudy Britain is blanketed under an additional fog of uncertainty. The anxiety has hit particularly hard in the scientific community, in which students, faculty, researchers and funding have enjoyed free movement back and forth across the Channel for decades. The question on everyone's minds is: Is all of that about to change?

Anyone hoping for near-term clarity had their hopes dashed by recent events in the U.K., including Prime Minister Theresa May’s eleventh-hour decision on December 10th to pull her unpopular deal from the Parliament floor, and the subsequent no-confidence vote among members of the Conservative Party. Though May survived that vote and continues to lobby with E.U. leaders in Brussels for a Brexit deal that she can sell to Parliament, the scientific community, both in Britain and across the Channel, continues to deal with pervasive uncertainty.

Money, money, money

As in any divorce, money is a prickly subject—and for years funding science in Europe has been in part a continent-wide endeavor. Since the June 2016 referendum, the U.K. government has made many promises to researchers, noting in particular that it’s prepared to pay into E.U. science programs, such as the next E.U. Framework Programme, Horizon Europe, to be able to participate post-Brexit. Still, some sources have suggested that British researchers are already being asked not to lead projects with European partners, as a hedge against an uncertain Brexit outcome.

The most potentially disruptive outcome—a no-deal scenario in which Britain “crashes out” of the E.U.—still seems far-fetched, considering the disastrous financial and political consequences. But the ticking clock and the delayed Parliament vote have people on edge. Without a hammered-out deal, it’s difficult for institutions to know which measures to put into place to safeguard the essential flow of science funding across borders.

“There are opportunities for our governments to negotiate a relationship which would allow access to consortia and funding models,” says Maggie Dallman, Vice President (International), Associate Provost (Academic Partnerships) at Imperial College London (ICL), U.K. But, as Dallman points out, “As of yet, we have no idea if we'll have access to funding at any level.”

Strategic alliances

Amid this pervasive uncertainty, some institutions are taking preemptive steps to ensure the future flow of funding, people and ideas in a post-Brexit world. Dallman is the architect of a widely publicized arrangement to strengthen ICL’s ties with Germany’s Technical University of Munich (TUM). (The BBC headline on the story referred to it as a “dual nationality” plan for Brexit, but, Dallman wryly notes, that description is a little misleading—while she says it would be “wonderful” if ICL could wave a magic wand and grant all of its staff dual nationality, the agreement actually refers to academic dual nationality.)

The alliance between ICL and TUM allows for joint appointments for staff by both institutions, keeping E.U. research funding available to U.K. academics. “This is a deliberate move in the face of Brexit to show that we are committed to remaining in contact and working closely with our colleagues on the continent,” says Dallman, “and we will not let things like Brexit inhibit that interaction.”

The ICL–TUM alliance does not create a physical footprint for ICL on the Continent, but according to Dallman, the subject of joint research institutions has been broached. The move would not be unprecedented. In fact, earlier this year, ICL and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) opened a joint laboratory for mathematics based in London.

Other institutions are also taking their own steps. Oxford University has formed a research partnership with four institutions in Berlin, Germany. Kings College London is also reportedly considering opening a post-Brexit campus in Germany, building on its established partnership with TU Dresden.

The real toll: People and perceptions

Such partnerships help to quell insecurities surrounding research funding and jobs, but perhaps not enough. Already, anecdotal reports speak of money and people flowing away from the U.K., and there is concern over attracting and retaining talented researchers and students. Allister Ferguson, professor of photonics at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, U.K., argues that the true toll of Brexit comes down to perception—and to the millions of people who suddenly find themselves on shaky ground.

“We've just got so used to people from E.U. countries being treated as U.K. citizens,” says Ferguson. “People who have been here for 20–30 years in some cases now find themselves being treated as if they're foreigners.” While it’s probably too early to see statistical evidence of a decrease in E.U. student and staff applications to U.K. universities, Ferguson is apprehensive about the future. “There is certainly a feeling that the country is less welcoming than it used to be,” he says, “which is, I think, disturbing to people in the university sector.”

Some institution staffers are getting creative in finding ways around Brexit—whatever form it ultimately takes. Ferguson cites instances of colleagues with Irish connections applying for dual citizenship, so even if there are post-Brexit issues, they will be free to move around Europe without hassle. There are also cases of European nationals who have been working at British universities for years finally applying for U.K. citizenship—for the sake of clarity in their position, even though it can be an expensive process.

At ICL, to help reassure staff and ease the Brexit transition, the college is paying the £65 fee for any staff member applying for “settled status,” which is an option for anyone who has lived in the U.K. for at least five years. A “settled” person can continue to live and work in the U.K. beyond the December 2020 Brexit transition deadline. For students, though, things get a little more complex. Currently, international fees for ICL students outside of the E.U. are much higher, and post-Brexit student fees could change dramatically.

Rippling repercussions

All of these dimensions must be considered in the context of the three possible paths forward for the U.K.: passing May’s deal; a no-deal Brexit; or the possibility of a second Brexit referendum—a prospect that once seemed unthinkable but has recently gained significant momentum. Notwithstanding May’s shuttle diplomacy, a clear path may not emerge until early next year.

Most of the scientific community, according to Dallman and Ferguson, is aligned behind wanting to stay in Europe. In the context of global issues, such as climate change and energy, international collaboration will be key. “Brexit could get in the way of that,” says Dallman, “and I think that we would all lose out if that happens.”