Interview: Brexit and Science: Brexit Means What…?

Published: Feb 06, 2017 By

Anne Forde

“Brexit means Brexit” according to Prime Minister Theresa May; however, this statement masks a series of complex questions. For example, what will be the future relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union? Will Britain participate in European funding programmes such as Horizon 2020? Will researchers from the European Union still flock to Britain’s globally renowned universities to do their work? How are the universities adjusting to these seismic changes?

In order to gain further clarity on what’s happening, we spoke to Dr. Anne Forde, Careers Adviser at the University of Cambridge. We began by asking her:

“What was the reaction among academia after the referendum? How has this evolved over time?”

Anne Forde: “The reaction was overwhelming disappointment; surveys done of academic staff before the referendum indicated that vast majority, 90%, were going to vote Remain. Disappointment at the result was inevitable. Since the referendum, attitudes have evolved: acceptance has set in. Pragmatism has also arisen. People now ask, “how can we make the best of the situation?” and “how can we inform staff and students of what is going to happen in the future?” Pragmatism implies, however, that there is a mixture of pessimism and a search for new opportunities. Additionally, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty because the eventual outcome for UK academia is still difficult to predict.”

What changes have you seen in the funding & careers landscape on a practical level?

AF: “There’s no change in funding at the moment as we’re still in the EU. Philip Hammond (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) has said he will underwrite any funding that we’ve already obtained from an EU grant even after we leave. That said, people are concerned about the economic impact due to Brexit; people are also thinking more broadly about their careers, thinking about going to other countries. In my experience, the people who are most likely to bring it up are EEA citizens who are uncertain about their prospects in the UK. There are no formal guarantees yet. We do not know how government will control EU migration in the future. There is concern because of all the uncertainty.

 

“Doing good science implies a desire
for people to move around.”

 

What are British based researchers doing in response to Brexit?

AF: “The majority [I see] are not happy. However, it doesn’t impact them directly yet, but the long term full access to EU funding is unlikely. I have asked Principal Investigators if they have seen any decrease postdoc applicants to their labs, no one has commented that they’ve seen any difference yet. Again, I’d emphasise: we’re in a holding pattern at the moment; so long as we’re in that, it’s business as usual.”

How are things different for EU researchers based in Britain?

AF: “EU researchers academic researchers who may have mainly looked at working [long term] in Britain are now also looking abroad. For example, if they have a personal affiliation, they may look at Germany more closely in addition to the UK. Doing good science implies a desire for people to move around where their talents can best be expressed, however these flows, thanks to Brexit, could be a disadvantage to British science if people who could have contributed go elsewhere.”

 

“Remember, 90% of university
staff backed Remain.”

 

What advice would you give to an ambitious researcher based in Britain at the moment?

AF: “At the moment, I’d advise that it’s business as usual, apply for any funding, carry on as normal – and speaking for Cambridge, we’re looking for opportunities that haven’t being pursued before. Think of the academic job market as a global market. Don’t limit yourself to a particular geographical area: we’re not sure what’s going to happen.

"For people who are not staying in academia, look more widely: I know that in the fields of biotech and pharma in the UK, for now, the market seems buoyant. That said, everyone has to be a bit more aware, a bit more employable. For example, develop language skills for target [job] markets in the EU: increasing one’s employability via this and other means is always a good thing to do.”

Brexit may have dented the reputation of Britain as a welcoming place to do research; what would messages would you like to send in light of this?

AF: “There’s plenty of fantastic science going on in the UK. I’d add that people who come to the UK are going to be completely welcome. Remember, 90% of university staff backed Remain; British universities will continue to be very international, meritocratic, and outward looking. It’s true that Brexit has shocked UK and worldwide academia; but this means that people who come from outside [the UK] will be even more welcome at UK institutions because we want to encourage them to come. In short, it’s a really great environment.”

Thank you for your time.

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