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Brexit bomb exploded

The chemistry enterprise faces uncertainty after British citizens voted to leave the EU

by Alex Scott
December 14, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 49

Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
An image of a bomb depicting Europe going off.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

One of Europe’s biggest political shocks in recent years was the British public’s June 23 decision to exit—or Brexit—the European Union. Many within the chemistry enterprise are now worried the U.K. could be shut off from key academic and trading partners in the EU.

Negotiations for the U.K.’s exit are set to begin in March 2017. Because of their complexity, they are expected to run for about two years.

There was anecdotal evidence soon after the vote that U.K. academics and U.K. university research projects were being excluded from certain European collaborations. Future scientific interactions could be threatened by U.K. government plans to limit the number of immigrants coming into the country. The Royal Society, an independent scientific organization, says restricting the immigration of EU scientists to the U.K. will damage the country’s science base.

In pharmaceuticals, the upheaval will extend to two European institutions currently based in London: the European Medicines Agency and a part of the EU’s planned unitary patent system. Both will have to relocate to an EU country.

Two studies published in the fall concluded that the life sciences sector is at particular risk as a result of Brexit. One imminent issue is a change in U.K. drug approval regulations: The U.K. could have to introduce its own approval system at taxpayer expense, which could cause huge upheaval in the country’s drug approval process.

In a boost for science research, though, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May recently announced that the U.K. will increase public funding for research and technology by more than $2 billion per year. This would more than offset the $1.6 billion that the U.K. science enterprise could lose in EU funding post-Brexit.

Uncertainty is also high on the trade front. The U.K. chemical industry wants to continue trading freely with all EU members without barriers or tariffs. But the European Commission has stated that the U.K. cannot choose economic access and reject social regulations such as free migration of EU citizens within EU countries.

The Chemical Industries Association (CIA), a U.K. industry organization, said during the summer that it expects plenty of give-and-take as part of Brexit negotiations. “If we want access to the single market, we are going to have to accept harmonization on a lot of regulations,” said Tom Crotty, CIA’s president and a member of the board of Ineos, a chemical firm with significant U.K. operations.


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