Worker moves parts produced for ITER

Uncertainty over the future of nuclear research demonstrates the impact Brexit is already having.Credit: Andrea Botto/ITER

So this is how the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union ends: not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with a series of technical notices published quietly on the website of Her Majesty’s Government.

The series of briefings — the latest batch was released earlier this month — discuss the possible consequences should Britain fail to agree terms with the EU on how to remove itself from the bloc. In those circumstances — the ‘no deal’ scenario — Britain would be ejected from a raft of shared laws and regulations, including those governing the free movement of people, goods and services across borders in the EU. With regulatory systems on either side of the English Channel out of step, experts have warned, the worst-case scenario could see chaos and disruption to supply chains, transport and daily life.

Scientists are among those who have been anxiously scanning the government notices. The documents include predictions of the effects on research funding (bad), access to satellite-navigation systems (minimal) and warnings about dangerous space debris (cross fingers and hope for the best). Government spokespersons have been at pains to play down the negatives highlighted by their own analyses, but in each case the attempt at reassurance has been the same: ‘It won’t come to that. We’re trying very hard to agree a deal.’

Officials need to do so in just six months: the two-year period since the United Kingdom gave its formal notice to quit the EU expires on 29 March 2019. Most politically pressing is to find a way to distinguish between Ireland (which will remain in the EU) and Northern Ireland (which won’t) without erecting a hard border, which, at worst, could reignite violence. But question marks hang over a string of issues, including how the United Kingdom should manage its nuclear research outside the EU, and whether the import of scientific equipment and reagents will be affected.

A sensible assessment of the situation says that the consequences of no deal are simply so bad that neither Britain nor the EU will let it happen. A compromise will surely emerge: either an extension of the deadline or some kind of holding commitment to make agreements in the near future. But numerous obstacles remain, among them that the ruling Conservatives will have to secure a vote in Parliament, and many of the party’s hard-liners are in no mood to compromise.

Some sectors are rightly making arrangements for a no-deal scenario. The UK Office for Nuclear Regulation, for example, says it is training staff and developing the IT infrastructure needed to work outside Euratom, the EU umbrella body. And some UK universities are strengthening links with overseas institutions in the hope that this will keep them plugged into European funding streams.

Regardless of whether or not a deal is done, many scientists are already seeing and feeling the impact of Brexit, as we report in a News Feature this week. Although it might seem on the surface that it is business as usual until key decisions are made, science and scientists in Britain are suffering as a result of the uncertainty. Researchers are less likely to get collaborators on projects, because academics in Europe view them as a risky bet and are teaming up with universities elsewhere. Some are finding it harder to fill key positions. Others feel unable to apply for EU funding, and the country is losing its reputation as an international hub of excellent research. Many scientists are feeling tired and disappointed. The uncertainty is taking a personal and emotional toll.

Some UK scientists do see opportunities. Earlier this month, plant scientists pointed out that a no-deal Brexit could spare them from new and controversial moves in Brussels to classify gene-editing techniques as genetic modification, and so subject to all the same strict rules. That might be good for them, but it also reinforces a broader concern about the future of EU policy. On issues from regulation of genetically modified crops to allowing research with embryonic stem cells, the UK government has historically been more bullish than other European nations, and this has helped to forge the continent into a world-leader in many fields. Without Britain’s contribution as a moderating and rational voice on key decisions, Europe’s attitude to science will suffer.

On this point, the EU can take some concrete steps to keep Britain at the table. UK officials will no longer be able to serve on advisory panels after Brexit, but some 100 UK scientists also work in Brussels in second-tier positions, such as for the Joint Research Centre, which informs EU legislation and regulations in policy areas from environment to migration. As things stand, they will be expected to leave with Brexit. Allowing them to stay on would be a small but pragmatic way for the EU to ease the impact of Britain’s departure. More must be sought. A united Europe is a major force in global research. It will be less of one after the United Kingdom goes.