Editorial – the impact of BREXIT on physics from a UK perspective

By . Published on 27 September 2016 in:
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On the evening of the 23rd June 2016, I was at an Awards Dinner for the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is held each year to recognise excellence in engineering of all varieties. Talking to colleagues around the table that night, the majority were sure that the UK electorate would vote to remain in the EU. Although only one person I talked to admitted to having voted to leave, I was not convinced that this was going to be such an easy victory for the Remain Campaign. I had been worried for some time that many people from “my generation”, who had voted to join the European Community in the last referendum in 1975, were coming out in force to reverse that decision. Although there were many scientists and engineers who had made a good case to politicians, and more widely via the media, for the benefits to our professional life from being part of the EU, there were still some loud voices from our own community that, although recognising the international character of science and research, were equally convinced that co-operation and collaboration within the EU was not the only, or indeed best, future available to the UK. They could point to the many other collaborative international research opportunities, for example with US, India and China, including those that arise alongside the EU but do not rely on being a member of the EU or on EU funding.

These arguments were, of course, primarily the science and engineering community talking to itself. The majority of the UK electorate have very little understanding of, or interest in, the processes of research, even if they recognise and enjoy the benefits that the results of such research bring to their lives. Their concerns were focused around the claimed impact of uncontrolled immigration from the EU and the pressure it may be putting on public services such as housing, health and schools as well as an inherent dislike of having ceded so much control and lawmaking to apparently unaccountable and unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. In this regard, the Leave Campaign were much more effective at stirring up voters than the Remain Campaign who focused on explaining what could happen to the economy and people’s jobs and lives if BREXIT happened. There was also a large number of people in England, outside the South East, who felt that politicians, businesspeople and Westminster were “out of touch” with what mattered to them and how they were feeling. For this element of the electorate, voting to leave was a protest vote as much as anything. So we woke up to the unexpected situation on the 24th June of a vote that will have a massive impact on so many aspects of life in the UK, including on science and research.

Since then, the science and engineering community, professional bodies, trade associations and University groups have been working together to set out the case for the future of science in the UK post BREXIT. Of course negotiations of the type of relationship that the UK will have with the EU in future are yet to start and our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said recently that she is not planning to invoke article 50 until 2017, despite calls from some other leaders within the EU for her to start the process and reduce the ongoing uncertainty that will affect all member states.  

Within the IoP, we recognise that being a member of the EU has delivered significant benefits to science and engineering in the UK. It has brought many leading researchers to work in UK Universities and in science-rich businesses. It has brought world leading partnerships and collaborations together that can compete and win on a world stage. It has funded important research projects and supported leading edge scientific facilities. We want to retain as many of those benefits as possible, but are realistic in recognising that benefits and responsibilities do go hand in hand. While money for science is important, the main issue must be provision for freedom of movement for scientists (in both directions) and the ability to access collaborations and facilities. So IoP has set out some of its priorities and issues it would like to see addressed during the negotiation. For. example:

  • Securing dispensation for scientists in any new freedom of movement regulations
  • Securing access and commitments to EU facilities – and understanding how reciprocal arrangements might work in practice
  • Securing access to European collaborative research opportunities and funding streams – given the choice, replacing the money is not the most important thing; it is the partnerships that the funding streams develop that really matter

In the short term, there is huge uncertainty for EU nationals living and working in the UK. Until any Article 50 process is complete, the employment status of EU nationals in the UK has not changed. But it is clear that the uncertainty, and possible changes to immigration statuses in the future, will have an effect on current staff and also the hiring of new staff into departments. According to HESA data, 24% of all research and teaching staff in UK physics departments are from other EU countries. In the longer term, we will be seeking assurances from government that UK physics will be able to recruit the best physicists in the world, no matter where they come from

There have already been some helpful developments. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, promised, on the 2nd September, that EU structural and investment fund projects signed before the Autumn Statement later this year, and Horizon research funding granted before leaving the EU, will be guaranteed by the Treasury after the UK leaves. This should give some short term confidence to consortia bidding for Horizon 2020 funding that involves UK institutions and researchers that they should still be able to participate in projects until they complete, even when the UK has left the EU. Hopefully this reassurance will go some way to helping continuing UK participation in projects whilst the negotiations play their course. We have heard some worrying anecdotes that UK researchers have already been asked to leave collaborations, or new potential projects, or step down from leadership roles. We will keep reminding colleagues across the EU that the UK is currently still a member and will likely be so for at least another two years, with ongoing funding until projects complete. Engagement in projects should really be on the basis of scientific contribution and merit rather than politics.

Although we do not expect the UK’s position in some of the non EU collaborations such as CERN, ILL, ESO and ESA to be affected by BREXIT, there are some areas where there is significant complexity in the ways in which EU funding is intertwined with other arrangements. For example, the Fusion programme at JET and ITER and Space projects such as Galileo and Copernicus all have significant UK engagement and EU funding arrangements. Sorting out future arrangements for such long term programmes must be a priority for the relevant communities.

In summary, BREXIT was not the result that most people in the UK expected and it is taking significant time for the politicians to organise themselves to be ready to start negotiations, for something that no one else has tried to do before. Politicians in the UK are increasingly convinced of the value of investment in science and research to the health of the economy and the wider benefits it brings. However, impact on science and research are unlikely to be at the top of their agenda when they start the BREXIT negotiations. Therefore, we need to be very active to keep reminding them of the things that really matter to the health of our science, Physics, the quality of our research and the careers of our people, both in the UK and across the EU. 

Dr Frances Saunders
UK member of the EPS Executive Committee

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