First published on, 29.03.17

Contributors: Alison Abbott, Ewen Callaway, Daniel Cressey, Elisabeth Gibney, Inga Vesper

When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on 23 June last year, the decision triggered a period of intense soul-searching and uncertainty, not least for a research community with strong and long-standing financial and social links to the continent. Worries about science funding, residency rights and even about racist attacks took root in laboratories across the country.

But the vote also marked the beginning of a phoney war: little of substance could be done or said by the government until it triggered the previously obscure ‘Article 50’ clause, in the EU’s governing treaty, to start the official process of leaving (see ‘A slow divorce‘). On 29 March, Theresa May will do just that. Nature has spoken to eight people whose lives have been changed by the ‘leave’ vote, to see what their experiences tell us about how science will progress, post-Brexit.

Simone Immler: I’m moving to Britain, despite Brexit
Ian Chapman: I spend half of my time dealing with Brexit
Gerry Gilmore: I’m probably out of a job, but my concern is for the next generation
Jernej Ule: I may leave the UK — if I have to
Marino Zerial: Come to Germany, where funding is good
Anna Scaife: All we have left is uncertainty
Mike Galsworthy: Scientists need to offer their vision for Brexit
Dominic Shellard: Now is not the time for academics to feel powerless

I’m moving to Britain, despite Brexit

Simone Immler, evolutionary biologist, Uppsala University, Sweden

On 10 June last year, Immler interviewed for her dream job, a permanent position studying the evolution of sex, at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK. Immler, who is Swiss, and her Israeli husband both run labs at Uppsala University — but the UEA was dangling a pair of positions in front of them.

Then, two weeks later, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. “We said, ‘This can’t be true’,” Immler recalls. But after reassurance from friends in the United Kingdom that the nation would still be welcoming to immigrants, she and her husband, evolutionary biologist Alexei Maklakov, decided to make the leap. Their family moved to the United Kingdom this month.

Despite uncertainties over the outcome of Article 50 negotiations, Immler is taking a ‘glass-half-full’ perspective. She hopes that the United Kingdom will follow the example of Israel, a non-EU country that pays into funding bodies such as the European Research Council, from which both she and her husband receive support. She will maintain a lab in Uppsala for another year, so that graduate students and postdocs can continue their projects there. But as a former postdoc at the University of Sheffield, UK, she knows the benefits of free movement across Europe, and worries that she will struggle to draw graduate students and postdocs from a large pool of young scientists.

“I’m generally optimistic,” Immler says. “It would have to come to extreme measures for us to leave again. Life would have to become very difficult for non-Brits in Britain, and we’re still hopefully quite far from that.”

I spend half of my time dealing with Brexit

Ian Chapman, chief executive officer, Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Abingdon, UK

The morning after the United Kingdom’s referendum on its membership in the EU, as other staff at the UK national laboratory for fusion-energy research walked around in a daze, Chapman was hastily making plans. His interview for a job to head the centre — which hosts the EU-funded Joint European Torus (JET) — was just days away, and the centre’s future was suddenly up in the air. “I’d made a load of preparations for things I wanted to say, and then I summarily had to rip them all up and start again,” he says.

Chapman got the job. He is now tasked with leading JET through the tumult and managing a skittish staff of around 550. The physicist estimates that at least half of his time is spent dealing with the impact of Brexit.

His main goal is to keep JET — a facility that holds the world record for fusion power — running beyond the end of its current contract in December 2018. Another is to maintain the United Kingdom’s involvement in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France, for which JET is a test bed. Both tasks got harder in January, when the UK government announced that, as part of the country’s withdrawal from the EU, it would also pull out of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), the body that distributes EU fusion funding and manages the United Kingdom’s membership of ITER.

The decision wasn’t a complete surprise, says Chapman. But it came without warning or an obvious plan for how to maintain the United Kingdom’s fusion programme after the nation leaves Euratom. Chapman is now collecting data to help the government to work out the implications of various ways forward, which range from becoming an associate member of Euratom to funding an independent programme of research.

He also fills his hours by settling staff members’ nerves. Scientists at JET are preparing for a 2019 dress rehearsal of a fuel mix that ITER will eventually use, which should see JET break its own fusion record — but it may never happen. Routine negotiations to extend JET’s contract are on ice.

The uncertainty has not yet triggered a mass exodus, says Chapman, but some top-level staff members have accepted positions elsewhere, and candidates have rejected job offers, citing questions over JET’s future.

Despite these uncertainties, Chapman thinks that the government understands what is at stake and says that it has been responsive. But the United Kingdom’s fusion community needs a concrete signal from the government — and soon. “There’s a time window beyond which the disquiet will ratchet up, and we will start to haemorrhage capacity,” says Chapman. “That will be hugely damaging, for us as an organization and for the entire fusion community.”

I’m probably out of a job, but my concern is for the next generation

Gerry Gilmore, experimental philosopher, University of Cambridge, UK

Brexit is likely to put Gilmore out of one of his jobs. As scientific coordinator of Opticon, EU’s Optical Infrared Coordination Network for Astronomy, he plans to hand control of the centre to an institution in an EU member state.

“It’s not even a question of us making that decision,” he says. “The UK government made the decision. Now, every grant coordinated from the UK has to leave.”

Opticon makes telescope time available to scientists across Europe and develops telescope technology, including real-time observation, electronic controls and superfast cameras. Because the consortium is funded by the European Union, Gilmore fears that the United Kingdom will lose access to the brain power that it needs to stay ahead in a competitive field.

Opticon also helps to set the long-term strategic agenda of telescope-based research and infrastructure across the EU, and Gilmore worries that the United Kingdom will soon have little say in such matters.

Gilmore’s European Research Council grant is also on the line as a result of Brexit, but his main concerns lie with young researchers. He fears that the next generation of UK scientists will have to shape their careers in a greatly diminished environment, as will European researchers who could lose access to UK universities.

Universities such as Cambridge also stand to lose funding if no deal granting them access to Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s research-funding programme, is negotiated. Opticon received €8.5 million (US$9.2 million) from the EU between 2013 and 2016 alone. Even if the UK government tops up national research funding to compensate for the loss of European programmes, Gilmore says, it can never replace the inspiration that British scientists gain from working with European colleagues.

“It’s simple — if the UK leaves the EU, its scientists leave,” he says. “It’s just an incredibly stupid decision.”

I may leave the UK — if I have to

Jernej Ule, molecular biologist, Francis Crick Institute, London

Later this year, Ule’s laboratory will welcome a rare specimen — a Brit. The rest of his team hail from Switzerland, Spain, France, Italy, elsewhere in Europe and beyond, and Ule is a Slovenian citizen who has lived in the United Kingdom for a decade. “My identity is European, not Slovenian or English,” he says. “I don’t want to choose countries — it’s a bit too narrow for how I work.”

Last August, Ule’s group was among the first to move into the Francis Crick Institute, a gleaming new £700-million ($880-million) super-lab in central London. The researchers still feel a buzz when they arrive for work, but “when it comes to Brexit, the conversation turns a bit gloomy”, Ule says.

Brexit’s threat to freedom of movement is a hot topic in the lab, as is continued access to EU funding. Half of the group receives money from the European Research Council, and Ule fears the financial hit if the United Kingdom loses access to EU research funding after Brexit. But even if national funders make up the lost cash, Ule says, vying with Europe’s top researchers for EU grants also helps the lab to stay at the cutting edge. “National funding agencies don’t care if you’re the second best, as long as you’re the best in the UK,” he says.

Ule doesn’t plan to leave Britain, but says that could change if a ‘hard Brexit’ — which may put an end to EU citizens’ easy passage to and from the country — puts limits on the openness he feels his lab represents. “If it’s something that goes against my principles, then I would consider going elsewhere.”

Come to Germany, where funding is good

Marino Zerial, director, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany

Brexit could be a boon for European research, at least in the short term, predicts Zerial. “The UK is becoming less attractive to do research, and so more people are going to consider countries in mainland Europe — particularly Germany, where the funding is so good.”

Germany’s research and development spending relative to its gross domestic product is among the highest in Europe.

Zerial expects to see an increase in applications to the large, international graduate school that is jointly run by his institute with the Technical University of Dresden, as well as in applications for postdoc and group-leader positions. “It’ll be to our benefit.”

But Brexit will hurt European science in the long run, he says. “When you lose an important piece of the European science landscape like the UK, it makes the European community weaker.”

He worries that there could be fewer funding opportunities in the United Kingdom for collaborative research with institutes in mainland Europe — and that remaining opportunities might face much more bureaucracy. “European Union funding, whatever its weaknesses, supports loads of projects, and the community treasures very much the collaborations involved,” he says.

All we have left is uncertainty

Anna Scaife, astrophysicist, University of Manchester, UK

“People treat you differently now,” says Scaife. Since the referendum, her European colleagues have been wary about starting new collaborations, owing to the uncertainty that now hangs over potential projects with UK citizens.

This cautiousness extends to both sides. Scaife and her colleagues are hesitant to participate in EU calls for proposals. She fears that she might become a liability to her colleagues’ applications to Horizon 2020, because of the extra risk of having a British institution on board. “That would be the worst thing — to see a project lose, and worry that you might be responsible,” she says.

Brexit is a constant topic of discussion in Scaife’s department, which works closely with many European organizations, including CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, and the Atacama Large Millimetre Array in Chile, an international facility run in large part by the European Southern Observatory. Without access to EU funding and the expertise of European colleagues, Scaife worries that the United Kingdom will be sidelined in future projects. “Our networks, our contacts will continue to be able to collaborate. All we have left is uncertainty.”

But what hurts Scaife most is seeing European colleagues being made to feel unwelcome in their UK home. Some areas of greater Manchester voted ‘leave’ by a large margin, and since the referendum, many international researchers have been subjected to anti-European and anti-immigrant abuse, she says. “These people contribute to the intellectual capital of our country, so it is hard to understand that hostility. And colleagues find it very distressing.”

For Scaife, the idea that extra spending from the UK government could make up for shortfalls in EU funding and the loss of the United Kingdom’s welcoming culture is preposterous. She says that collaboration is the lubricant that drives the nation’s ideas machine. Without access to the brightest people, and without creating a positive environment for European scientists, she warns, the United Kingdom is playing a dangerous game of isolationism.

Scientists need to offer their vision for Brexit

Mike Galsworthy, co-founder, Scientists for EU

On the night of the Brexit referendum, Galsworthy watched the results come in from the ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ campaign war room. A former research-policy analyst, Galsworthy had co-founded Scientists for EU to ensure that scientists’ voices were prominent in campaign efforts to persuade Britons to vote ‘remain’. When he returned from a television interview around midnight, after the results had begun to swing pro-Brexit, the mood had grown decidedly grimmer, Galsworthy says — “and it stayed grimmer”.

Galsworthy, who works full time for Scientists for EU, was ready for the outcome. “My main concern was to document what this means for the UK science community,” he says. Within a few weeks, Scientists for EU had collected more than 400 complaints from the research community: infrastructure and hiring freezes, foreigners turning down jobs in the United Kingdom — “dozens of stories of impact”, Galsworthy says.

Despite being on the losing side of the referendum, Galsworthy considers that his campaign to give scientists a louder voice has been successful. Before the 2015 general election, science was not on the political agenda, he says. “Science is certainly on the political radar now.” The UK government has tried to address scientists’ concerns by announcing £2 billion ($2.5 billion) per year of new funding for research by 2020, and guaranteeing support of existing EU research grants, also up to 2020, that might be jeopardized by Brexit.

But more broadly, the government has tarnished the United Kingdom’s image in the eyes of many scientists in Britain and beyond, Galsworthy says. Researchers’ concerns were not alleviated when Prime Minister Theresa May said, in a recent speech, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

“This was something that doubled down on the hurt of Brexit and the fracturing that it caused, and went straight to the identity of the science community,” says Galsworthy. “She was oblivious.”

With the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU still deeply uncertain, he now hopes to galvanize researchers to offer their own vision for what science in the United Kingdom and Europe should look like. Brexit, he maintains, is an existential threat to the region’s role as a global hub for science — “unless we can be smart enough to sidestep this”.

Now is not the time for academics to feel powerless

Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

The morning after the UK voted to leave the EU, Shellard called a meeting at De Montfort University. A thousand people turned up at just a few hours’ notice.

“There were lots of very distressed people,” he says. “There were staff who were in tears. One Polish student asked me whether I could write him a letter. I said, ‘What do you need a letter for?’. He said ‘I’m going home to Poland this weekend and I need a letter to give to the border guards at Heathrow to let me back into the country.’”

Like many university vice-chancellors in the United Kingdom, Shellard does not want the nation to leave the EU. As in other UK universities, significant percentages of his staff, his students and his research funding come from the EU. In the wake of the vote, the university sector has been wracked with nerves about all three of these elements being damaged.

Whereas some vice-chancellors have taken to writing to newspapers or issuing pleas for protection, Shellard launched a campaign he called #LoveInternational, to reassure existing and potential staff and students from the EU, as well as to protect their residency rights.

His tactics included holding a 24-hour vigil in support of EU staff and students — and more broadly against intolerance globally. Shellard also toured Europe, talking to concerned people in Nicosia, Warsaw, Stockholm, Vilnius and Berlin.

Similar to many in academia, Shellard stresses the need for universities to obtain certainty on three key issues: the rights of EU nationals residing in the United Kingdom, the status of EU students at UK universities, and European research funding. However, he doubts that universities will be at the top of the government’s priority list now that negotiations are starting.

His message to the academic community is this: instead of waiting for someone else to do something, “You can make a difference. You can engage. You mustn’t feel impotent.”