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Why the Brexit vote result has UK scientists terrified

The scientific community has been thrown into turmoil because of Brexit.

Brexit — the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union — is raising urgent questions for the future of the UK.

Among the many communities gobsmacked by Thursday night’s voting results is UK scientists — who depend heavily on EU membership for research funding, collaboration, and recruitment of top talent.

Their access to Europe’s large pool of research funding is now at stake, as is their ability to share knowledge across borders.

Some of the most dramatic recent advances in science in Europe — like the discovery of the Higgs boson particle — depend on international collaboration. And so the Brexit is also a huge morale blow. It could mean there will be fewer opportunities for sharing ideas and more limited means for Britons to join the most important projects happening in their fields.

The UK is a scientific powerhouse

As the Economist points out, the UK represents just 1 percent of the world’s population but is home to 4 percent of all scientific researchers. Those scientists produce 16 percent of the most highly cited research papers in the world. The UK punches heavily above its weight when it comes to science.

But EU membership helps fuel that UK powerhouse, both by providing funding for research projects and by enabling an international science culture, which hastens the flow of people and ideas to the country.

So the 52 percent vote in favor of Brexit Thursday night shocked many British researchers who were hoping to remain in the EU.

"Brexit will immediately destabilize our ongoing European Union–funded multi-center studies," summed up Rustam Al-Shahi Salman, a professor of clinical neurology at the University of Edinburgh. In particular, Al-Shahi Salman said, the future of any project currently being set up or seeking funding is now far less certain, because all such projects were planned under EU regulation.

"And it will decrease the financial support for research in the UK because we will no longer be eligible for European funding," he added.

In March, Nature surveyed 666 researchers living in the UK. A full 83 percent of respondents said they’d like to remain in the EU. But more than that, the scientists also predicted that leaving the EU would have horrible consequences for science in the country.

Why are scientists worried? First off: funding.

The most obvious worry is about funding. According to the BMJ, research is one area in which the UK gets a hefty return on its investment. While the UK contributes £5.4 billion to EU research, it gets back £8.8 billion in research grants. This means UK researchers might lose access to that pool of money, including the Horizon 2020 program, a large-scale funding scheme for ambitious science projects.

Currently, UK research institutions get around 16 percent of their funding from the EU, Nature reports. (Pro-"Leave" politicians have promised to make up for the budget shortfall. But then labs would have to reapply for their grants, through a system that may prioritize their work differently.)

But with the UK departure, the European Union will also miss out on UK money for science. "And then the EU-funded science would cost more," Debora MacKenzie reports in MIT Technology Review. "Britain would also lose its right, as an EU member, to help decide how the money is spent."

Now the research community will be left to scramble in order to make up that difference.

"In the past, UK science has been well supported by EU funding," said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, in a statement. "This has been an essential supplement to UK research funds. In the upcoming negotiations we must make sure that research, which is the bedrock of a sustainable economy, is not short changed, and the Government ensures that the overall funding level of science is maintained."

The Brexit will hit certain research areas harder than others, notes Digital Science, an academia-focused tech firm. Forestry sciences in the UK receive 53 percent of their funding from the EU and evolutionary biology gets around 67 percent; the nanotechnology sector gets around 62 percent of its funds from European grants.

The second worry is potentially greater.

Second: The scientific community benefits greatly from open borders

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp reports, Brexit was largely about fears around recent immigration surges in the UK.

But open European borders have been great for young scientists, since citizens of any EU country can live in any EU country. They can work or study anywhere on the continent, and many choose the UK; its research institutions get 15 percent of their staff from EU countries.

"One of the great strengths of UK research has always been its international nature, and we need to continue to welcome researchers and students from abroad," Ramakrishnan added. "Any failure to maintain the free exchange of people and ideas between the UK and the international community including Europe could seriously harm UK science."

"People who work in the science community grow up with the concept that through collaboration great scientific insights happen," Paul Drayson, a former UK science minister, told Scientific American. "And so the very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists."

Open European borders have also helped accelerate collaboration and innovation in science. Think of the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator that’s changing our understanding of the universe, which is based in Switzerland and France. That project employs more than 2,000 people from 21 EU member countries.

These types of collaborations will only continue to become more necessary as the questions scientists seek to answer become more complex. But Brexit means it might become harder for the UK to host such ambitious endeavors.

What comes next for UK scientists?

The details of how the UK will exit the EU will be hashed out in a long and complicated two-year process. But given the politics of the vote, it’s likely to result in tougher restrictions on immigration. And researchers say one of their immediate worries is that they’ll lose out on recruiting opportunities.

"In my research group of 10 or so people ... we have very international representation," Michelle L. Oyen, an engineer at Cambridge, tells Vox. "All we are doing with Brexit is making it such that more and more people (like postdoc applicants or young academics) have to jump through a lot of hoops to even come close to being eligible for visas. With that, it’s likely that people won’t bother to apply and we’ll lose a lot of quality applicants in early career science and engineering."

The Royal Astronomical Society, which began in London in 1820, is similarly concerned.

"UK and European science benefit from the free movement of people between countries, something that has allowed UK research to become world leading," according to a press statement from the society. Big scientific collaborations like the European Space Agency or the European Southern Observatory are not limited to EU membership, the society mentions. But "these organizations depend on international recruitment made easier by straightforward migration between countries."

"British scientists will have to work hard in the future to counter the isolationism of Brexit if our science is to continue to thrive," Paul Nurse, the head of the Francis Crick Institute in London, told reporters.

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