On June 23, the U.K. held a referendum that has the potential to change the fate of the country forever. The nation was voting on whether to leave or remain within the European Union. In that vote, 52% of those who voted were in favor of leaving the EU, which means the U.K. must now plan its exit.
This decision, which throughout its campaign was referred to as Brexit, has many wide-reaching repercussions for the country and the EU.
Europe is Britain’s most important export market and its greatest source of direct foreign investment. An exit from the EU is likely to jeopardize that status—and in the wake of the vote, the pound is at its lowest valuation in years. Projections differ, but the consensus is that Britain would be worse off, at least in the short term, and see slower economic growth and decreased job opportunities.
The drop in exports is likely to have an impact on the chemical industry. Many European agencies (such as the European Medicines Agency) and businesses that have headquarters in the U.K. could potentially move to alternative locations in Europe. You can read analysis from C&EN Senior Editor Alex Scott on page 5.
The Brexit is also likely to affect scientists in a big way. Researchers may lose their ability to collaborate with partners within Continental Europe and draw from European funds such as the Horizon 2020 program, which offers grants totaling 74 billion euros. European money currently amounts to one-tenth of university research funding in the U.K. Even before anything has changed, Professor Helga Nowotny, a former president of the European Research Council, reportedly said that given the length of the process for evaluation and approval of projects, there may be less willingness to include U.K. researchers in proposals.
Researchers’ mobility will also be affected. I was one of the students who took advantage of the Erasmus exchange programs, which require students to do an internship at an academic institution in another European country. I went to the U.K. from Spain to complete the final year of my degree. That first year there changed my life. I ended up staying for 17 years, was able to do a Ph.D., held a variety of jobs including at the Royal Society of Chemistry, and developed personally and professionally. A Brexit means that the future of this program in relation to engaging U.K. institutions and their students is also in jeopardy.
So what happens now? In the days since the vote, it is clear there is no plan yet by the U.K. government and no clear path forward. The U.K. has a very strong science base and has traditionally been able to attract talent from around the world to settle and do research there.
U.K. scientists face uncertainty and fear that the status of the nation as a scientific powerhouse may suffer.
Anne Glover, a Scottish biologist and academic at the University of Aberdeen and former EU chief scientific adviser, admitted to being “heartbroken,” and Sir Paul Nurse, former president of the Royal Society and Nobel Prize-winning geneticist described it as “a very poor outcome for British science.”
The country now faces isolationism of science and risks being “excluded from many of the collaborations and decision-making bodies, and we will lose our ability to influence new developments and new research directions,” said current president of the Royal Society, Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.
So science, and not just in the U.K., loses: “Brexit is bad for U.K. science, for European science, and for all of us. Like in sports, once a high-level competitor is lost, the game also suffers,” Nowotny added.
In a world where we should be working toward eliminating barriers and facilitating the movement of people, ideas, and funds, Brexit seems a retrograde step. Again, science suffers.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.