As all of you know, UK voted for Brexit.
In the local village sauna (yes, we have one of those) the reactions ranged from Brexit being stupidity in action, to quotes such as this was EU’s fault for not being on par with the people and that this could serve as a bloody needed wakeup call for the union. I sat mainly silent, stunned by the absoluteness of the decision. Because it is such a major decision, and a decision that have ramifications on so many levels for so many people.
As a scientist, I wonder what this will mean for UK and EU science? Truth is, no one knows. (And the elderly men in my sauna had no answer either). What we do know is that over the years, science and education have become more and more interconnected in the EU as a whole. And that’s a damn good thing. During my career it has become easier to study and conduct research outside Sweden, and for students from other countries to come to Sweden. Actually, after finishing a PhD, one of the most common ways of continuing in science is to apply for EU-funded postdocs (foremost via the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant programs). I have many friends that have done that journey, and as PI I have had students applying for this funding to come to my lab. Also at the next level, where an aspiring scientist wants to develop his own research group, the EU provides means to do so via the ERC starting grants. Will these opportunities remain for young UK researchers? And what will happen with the opportunities for postdocs from the rest of the EU to do their work in the UK? The UK has been a magnet for talented Europeans for a long time, and it would be a terrible loss if that door, if not closed totally, would be harder to get through. Moreover, what will happen with European-wide calls, such as Horizon 2020 grants? At the moment I am participating on a grant proposal at the second stage where 2 out of the 6 partners are from the UK – will it be considered for funding anyway?
The interconnected science world is manifested also locally, even in a small university such as the one I work at. For instance, I have participated in EU-funded research, acted as an expert in EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) opinions, have had UK colleagues on shared grants, hosted postdocs with roots or training in the UK, and once I was close to actually move to the UK myself. I have met so many talented UK researchers at so many different levels. It is a shame if the ties connecting research between UK and EU will be weakened. It would be a great loss for EU and devastating for the upcoming research generation in the UK if they cannot participate at the same level as other European researchers.
You may say that is doom and gloom talk, that in fact not much will change, that either EU or the UK will make sure that funding and research opportunities will continue more or less as they are now. I hope you are right, but fear that you are wrong. For sure, there will be a backlash if article 50 is invoked, the question is how big and how long-lasting it will be. Because once you’re out, you cannot really continue business as usual. Simply put, why would EU-funds be used to support UK research and infrastructure in the future if not the UK is paying their share, or if EU-researchers cannot move freely to the UK?
It is still early on in the Brexit process, and we’ll have to wait and see what will come out of this mess. If my crowd in the sauna come up with a solution, I will let you know.