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Brexit watch: Scientists grapple with the fallout

Xenophobia and mobility fears among issues facing researchers two weeks on.

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Thousands march in London on 2 July to protest the referendum vote to leave the EU.

Two weeks after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the future remains opaque. Concerns within the research community are particularly intense for those who rely on the EU for funding, or who have the right to work in the United Kingdom only because they are citizens of other EU countries. Here is Nature’s selection of the week’s post-Brexit science news.

Location in limbo

Whether non-UK EU nationals currently living in the United Kingdom will be able to remain there has become a hotly debated issue — and 15% of academics working in the United Kingdom fall into this category. Theresa May, the current Home Secretary and leading candidate to be the next prime minister, has said that the future right to residence for these people will be part of negotiations with the rest of the EU. Other ministers have backed her up on this, and science minister Jo Johnson has said that he can make no promises in this area.

Xenophobic incidents

Reports of xenophobia directed towards scientists and academics have surfaced since the vote. In the days that followed, Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said that some of his staff were told to “go home”, while Exeter University, UK, reported verbal abuse of staff and students. Since then, the Russell Group of leading UK universities has expressed concern about racism. In a statement issued on 5 July, the group’s chair, David Greenaway, and its chief executive, Wendy Piatt, said that universities have “always warmly welcomed people from different cultures, ethnicities and beliefs. … So we are especially concerned by reports of increasing xenophobic incidents and how this could impact on our communities.”

Medical moves

The Spanish government is eyeing up the European Medicines Agency, which is currently based in London. Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, says that a working group is looking to ensure that either or both the European Banking Authority, which is also in London, and the European Medicines Agency end up in Madrid. “Both are of great interest to Spain, and we will work on the possibility that at least one of them will be located on Spanish territory,” she told the Financial Times.

In the UK, life sciences minister George Freeman has enlisted GSK head Andrew Witty and Astra Zeneca boss Pascal Soriot to co-chair with him a Life Science Steering Group that will produce recommendations on how to deal with issues including regulation, trade and intellectual property in any new relationship with the EU.

Collaboration chill

There are also fresh fears that British researchers are being frozen out of pan-EU funding proposals made under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, following similar concerns last week. Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, told the BBC: “Since the referendum result, of the 12 projects that we have people working on for submission for an end-of-August deadline, on four of those projects researchers in other European countries have said that they no longer feel that the UK should be a partner.”

Brexit "will add bureaucratic impediments for academic cooperation and mobility of students and researchers", Peter Strohschneider, president of the DFG, Germany’s main research funding agency, told the German Press Agency (DPA). "Research collaborations will continue - they succeed so well with many other countries - but it will become ever more expensive and difficult," said Schneider.

Neuroscience worries

Brexit was the word on everyone’s lips at the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies meeting in Copenhagen this week. Monica Di Luca, a neuroscientist at the University of Milan, Italy, and current president of the federation, issued a statement saying that she was “deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences for European neuroscience due to the decision of the UK to leave the EU”. The federation's president-elect, Barry Everitt of the University of Cambridge, UK, said: “The UK’s highest goal in the negotiations must be to remain part of the European Research Council and to preserve the essential freedom of movement for researchers at all stages of their careers.”

Open access

Scientific journal PeerJ has offered British researchers a discount on its open-access publishing fee, on the grounds that “EU grants to the UK look to dry up to the tune of billions of pounds each year”.

Commons committee

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee opened its inquiry into the implications of the referendum vote. Committee chair Nicola Blackwood writes in The Guardian: “We won’t solve Brexit. I don’t think even our most distinguished witness will have all the answers yet. What our inquiry will do, however, is identify the questions that need to be asked, the key priorities for negotiations and zero in on the main risks and opportunities.”

Wanted: your stories

The Scientists for EU lobby group is collecting stories from researchers on how the vote is affecting them. Its head, Mike Galsworthy, has also written up his take on the year leading up to the vote, and where he goes from here, in Research Fortnight.

Additional reporting by Alison Abbott

Journal name:
Nature
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature.2016.20226

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