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Image by Trey Ratcliffe, shared under licence

They say a week is a long time in politics, but for the past couple of months the political landscape has seemed to change by the day. As the dust settles on the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, the implications of that decision for UK science are still only starting to become clear.

The role of the EU in UK science

Before the referendum, the Society took a close look at the role of the EU in UK research, publishing three reports on funding, research collaboration and researcher mobility, and regulation and policy. As a Member State, the UK does remarkably well out of European research funding and our universities have become increasingly reliant on it. From 2007-2013 the UK received £8.8 billion in direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities. European researchers are among our top collaborative partners and European regulations govern many areas of science in the UK.

Following the UK’s vote to leave, it is not clear what role the EU will play in the future research landscape. This could pose a challenge to maintaining the UK’s excellence in science. The Society has called for the UK to retain the maximum possible involvement in EU-funded research programmes. However the process of negotiations that might get us to this outcome looks likely to be long and complex. In the meantime there are some concerns that should be addressed more urgently, to limit any potential damage to UK science from a prolonged period of uncertainty.

Tackling uncertainty in the short term

While the UK continues to be a Member State, UK researchers should be able to continue to collaborate with colleagues in the EU and beyond, and participate fully in EU-funded research programmes. The Society therefore welcomed the Chancellor’s recent announcement that Government will work with the European Commission to ensure payment when funds are awarded to researchers in the UK while we are a member of the EU. This includes applications to competitive European research programmes, like Horizon 2020.

This guarantee means that for all applications submitted to European programmes before the date that the UK officially exits the EU, Treasury will underwrite payment of any awards made to researchers in the UK. This guarantee will cover the full life of the funded project, even if this extends beyond the UK’s departure from the EU.

This statement aims to assure UK researchers that any funds they win will be honoured and to make clear to their European partners that collaborations with UK partners will not be cut short.

One other area where uncertainty is still a cause for concern is the status of the EU nationals already working in UK research and innovation. There are 31,000 researchers from the EU currently working in our universities. They represent 16% of the academic workforce and now find themselves facing an uncertain future. The Society has called on Government to act as soon as possible to clarify their rights to live and work in the UK.

A long road to Brexit

It looks unlikely that Article 50 will be triggered this year and when the negotiations do start, science will only be one of the many issues on the table. Alongside the process for exiting the EU, a broader reconsideration of the UK’s economic and industrial policies, as well as our wider place in the world, is beginning. It will be important to consider the role of science in all of this.

Over the coming months the Society will be working to ensure science plays a role in negotiations, policy development and international relationships, as well as considering how to achieve the best outcomes for science for the long term.

The Society’s approach

Since the referendum, the Society has published a statement with seven UK national Academies setting out some of the key issues for research, as well as a statement with over 30 European Academy partners and a twitter campaign to show that #ScienceisGlobal.

The UK’s changing relationship with the EU and changing role in the world are key issues for UK research and priorities for the Society. We will be continuing our work over the coming months and years to develop robust advice for decision makers as the situation progresses.

Find out more about the Royal Society’s work on Brexit and UK science.