Brexit's impact on the scientific community

15 August 2019

Boris Johnson has pledged to maintain the UK’s standing as a global science superpower, abolishing immigration restrictions on elite researchers and scientists, in the event of an upcoming no-deal.

Tiffany Hionas

The Prime Minister speaking via Facebook Live last week, acknowledged the international and collaborative nature of science. Science has historically welcomed and prospered from the participation of EU citizens, but with the upcoming event of Brexit, Johnson assured that measures will be taken to encourage the world’s top researchers and scientists to the UK, countering fears that Britain’s science enterprise might collapse.

The UK government has pledged to shake up the immigration rules, with the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy already developing a new fast-track visa route. This will be designed to abolish the cap on Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas. The visas will provide more UK research institutes and universities with the freedom to endorse candidates. This means the criteria will change, allowing automatic endorsement of researchers and a fast-tracked route to settlement.

One major concern about leaving the EU without a deal, is that scientists and researchers could leave the UK due to uncertainty around funding. Horizon 2020 is a major source of funding for the UK, and researchers who already have open applications for EU funding are concerned about their funding status in this situation. A statement from Downing Street has promised that if Horizon 2020 applications are stuck in the approval process once the UK leaves the EU without a deal, then the European Commission with continue to assess all UK applications. Successful applicants will then be funded by the government’s existing guarantee and extension, committed to covering all successful UK Horizon 2020 bids – regardless of how the UK leaves the EU.

After announcing a new fast-track visa route for the most talented researchers to move to the UK, the Prime Minister visited the UKAEA at Culham Science Centre last week. On his visit, he was shown the huge potential of nuclear fusion as a low-carbon energy source. Johnson believes this sustainable fusion reactor is reflective of the UK’s potential and feels confident that with the new immigration reforms in place, the UK will lead the world in the energy sector.

However, whilst the news has been broadly welcomed by scientists, many warn that difficulties will be exacerbated by a no deal Brexit. Beth Thompson, Head of UK and EU policy at the Wellcome Trust said, ‘A great visa system alone is not enough for UK science to thrive’ but it is crucial to ‘agree a deal for science.’

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