BREXIT: From a scientists point of view

As a scientist, mobility is part of our job. As a German national, I have lived in France to gain lab experience before going to the UK for my PhD and a short post-doc. The fact that I didn’t need work permits or visas made this a lot easier. Shockingly the UK has now optioned out of free mobility and exchange in a close-call referendum voting to leave the EU in order to “re-claim their independence”.

To be frank I did not see it coming. I knew it was a close call from predictions, but it didn’t occur to me that the British public would actually vote LEAVE. The economical downsides of this vote just seemed too big. And indeed the pound has lost 8% of it value today – the biggest effect on any currency ever.

Implications for research and researchers in the UK

The implications for science in the UK and EU are not yet clear, but the fear that the vote will negatively impact research in the UK is huge. The main reason for this is money- 16% of funding for research performed in the UK comes from the EU. That’s 7 billion pounds between 2007 and 2013. Many worried that the UK government won’t be able to make up for a loss of EU funding.

There is hope – as LEAVE campaigners have pointed out, the European Research Council (ERC) does fund projects outside the EU. Researchers from Norway, Switzerland and Israel have all been involved in ERC-funded projects. But this comes at a cost – the countries have to put money into the EU-research pot that funds the ERC. So you buy in – similar to the contribution made by EU-members. But it is not just money; countries that want to receive money from the ECR also have to obey EU rules, for example the free mobility within the EU. So the UK would have to do the same as a EU-member to be eligible for EU funding – something the LEAVE campaign forgot to mention. These terms are also non-negotiable. Something Switzerland learnt the hard way. After tightening immigration laws last year, the country was striped of most of it EU funding, e.g. students can no longer go abroad on Erasmus-scholarships.

The possible decrease in funding and harder rules on work permits and visas will make the UK less attractive to foreign researchers. Currently, 15% of researchers at UK institutions are from EU states and many are now worried about their status in the UK. The same is true for British scientists working abroad in EU countries. While it is likely that current employments and projects won’t be affected, all future job will be – and that will hurt the science location UK!

ΔBut more than that this vote feels personal.. Why?

If the UK hadn’t been a part of the EU 8 years ago, I am not sure I would have gone there for my PhD. Unimaginable now, but probably true.

Students from the UK and EU pay cheaper tuition fees than students from non-EU countries. £4500 rather than £20900 a year. This makes a massive difference over the 3-4 years it takes to finish a PhD. It’s also the reason why there are so many scholarships for UK and EU students but not for over-see students. One stipend for non-EU students, including living costs and tuition costs, could fund two to three UK/EU students. So if EU students no longer get the same cheaper university fees, less international students will be able attend UK Unis.

That’s the most upsetting part about this vote- I have experienced the benefits of free mobility within the EU and it shaped me as a scientist and as a person. Many of the friends I made in the UK, stayed, found love, married and got kids. And heartbreakingly, due to this ill-advised vote many young people (not just scientist) won’t have the same chance now.

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