The decision by the people of Great Britain to leave the European Union not only left political chaos in its wake, but also roiled neuroscientists across the United Kingdom. Researchers there fret that the decision will cut them off from EU funds and international projects, and discourage European students and postdocs from joining their labs. Many foresee that collaborative research will become more complicated, difficult, and slow. Some worry about the future viability of projects that depend on international consortia. Ironically, this setback comes at a time when a growing emphasis on large multinational initiatives has begun to propel neurodegenerative research forward. Scientists in all fields overwhelmingly wanted to remain and have reacted with alarm to the outcome of the June 23 vote, as reported by Science and Nature.
“I am bitterly disappointed by the Brexit decision—it was a dark day for U.K. science,” Adrian Isaacs at University College London wrote to Alzforum. Bart De Strooper at KU Leuven in Belgium concurred, “The Brexit vote has shocked me, and from the reactions I hear at the conference I am attending, it is creating a lot of confusion and uncertainty among the British and to a lesser extent the European scientific community.” (See full comment below.) De Strooper holds a joint appointment at UCL.
Politicians have not laid out any clear plan for the U.K.’s future relationship with Europe. Much depends on whether the U.K. remains in the European Economic Area, a route followed by Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, or negotiates its own set of bilateral agreements with the EU for each program it wants to join, as Switzerland does. The former would be less disruptive for research, as the U.K. would stay in the single market with free movement of people between countries; however, this option is unlikely to satisfy “Leave” campaigners who won votes by promising to curb immigration. Whatever model the U.K. settles on, managing international research projects is likely to become more cumbersome, and access to funding may come with more restrictions, scientists say. This may place U.K. researchers at a disadvantage when competing for grants and personnel. “The U.K. runs the risk of sending a message that it is not a credible international partner for scientific collaboration,” Rick Livesey at the University of Cambridge wrote to Alzforum (see full comment below).
Currently in science, the U.K. leads the EU as one of its wealthiest and most productive members. Many large multinational projects are headquartered in the U.K., and if U.K. science falters, neurodegenerative research across the continent may suffer as well. “The outcome of last week's referendum cannot be good for scientific research, which is international and must remain so,” Michel Goedert at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, wrote. Rita Guerreiro at UCL agreed. “Although the U.K. is an island, science is exactly the opposite. We need collaborations to move it forward,” she wrote (see full comment below).
EU Funds Drive U.K. Research Engine
The EU is a major player in world science, home to more than one-fifth of all researchers and churning out a third of all papers, according to reports from UNESCO and Science Europe and Elsevier. The U.K. powers the world’s fifth-largest economy, and ranks as the second most populous country in the EU, equal with France at 65 million and lagging behind only Germany. Because of this, the U.K. contributes a total of €17 billion per year to the EU, though much of it comes back.
In science, the U.K. reaps rich rewards from EU membership. U.K. scientists won 16 percent of all grants from the previous EU funding program, FP7, which ran from 2007 to 2013. During these years, the U.K. pulled in nearly €6 billion in research funding alone, second only to Germany, according to a report by the tech firm Digital Science, which develops software tools for research. Universities, industry, and non-profits benefited from these awards and overall, nearly one-quarter of the funding for U.K. health and bioscience research comes from the EU, Digital Science reported.
This influx of funds has boosted U.K. science, according to a blog post by Mike Galsworthy, research policy consultant at the London School of Hygiene &Tropical Medicine, and Rob Davidson, data scientist at the online journal GigaScience. Galsworthy and Davidson lead the organization Scientists for EU, which campaigned for Britain to remain. They note that since joining the EU, both the output and the impact of U.K. research has grown steadily. The U.K. recently eclipsed the United States in the number of times its research was cited, largely thanks to its international collaborations, according to a separate Digital Science report.
Awards from the EU’s current funding program, Horizon 2020, which runs from 2014-2020, also reflect this upward trend. For the first time, the U.K. overtook Germany in number of grants won. The U.K. and Germany each received nearly €1 billion in funding in 2015, more than double the roughly €400 million awarded to France, the next most populous country, Digital Science reported. Importantly, most Horizon 2020 grants are given out for international collaborations. “The U.K. is currently in the driving seat of a global hub of research excellence that is larger than the U.S. in output size, growing faster than the U.S., and with a far higher rate of international collaborations,” Galsworthy and Davidson wrote in their blog.
Post-Brexit, this progress is at risk. The U.K. lags behind other EU countries in domestic and industry contributions to research, leaving it particularly dependent on EU money, Digital Science notes. EU awards are likely to drop, regardless of how the U.K.’s relationship with the union will unfold, according to Galsworthy and Davidson’s analysis. The Digital Science report supports this assessment, noting that only 7 percent of EU funding currently goes to non-member states, mostly to Switzerland and Norway. Norway receives about 10 percent of what the U.K. does, and grants to Switzerland dropped 40 percent from FP7 to Horizon 2020, Galsworthy and Davidson calculated based on the initial report from the latter program.
Could savings from EU contributions make up the shortfall, as Leave promoters promised? Galsworthy and Davidson consider this unlikely, noting that a probable economic slump in the U.K. following Brexit will more than wipe out those savings. In addition, there is no mechanism, or guarantee, that U.K. politicians will direct those funds to research. The Digital Science report agreed. “The U.K.’s ability to collaborate on a global scale will inevitably be significantly impacted by reduced funding from the EU,” it concluded.
Researchers interviewed by Alzforum wondered if even their current grants are safe. Tara Spires-Jones at the University of Edinburgh has a €2 million EU grant due to start this year, but now does not know if she will receive it. “These kinds of grants start the careers of neuroscientists in Europe,” she noted. Spires-Jones also worries that the slowing economy post-referendum could cut donations to charities like Alzheimer’s Research U.K., starving yet another funding stream for science. Roxana Carare at the University of Southampton said that none of her colleagues know whether they can still apply for upcoming EU grants. The uncertainty is distracting her and colleagues from their work. “But until somebody tells us not to, we’re still carrying on with our grant applications and going on as normal,” Carare told Alzforum.
Impeding the Free Flow of Researchers and Ideas
Equally concerning as funding is the question of how Brexit will affect the ability of researchers to move freely between labs. Currently, 15 percent of academic staff at U.K. universities, and up to 20 percent at elite universities, come from EU countries, according to Nature. Many EU programs promote the flow of research labor, including the Erasmus+ exchange program for students and Marie Curie fellowships for postdocs. European Research Council grants for young scientists can be used anywhere in the EU. Forty percent of the people in Isaacs’ UCL lab come from other EU nations. “We benefit enormously from recruiting the best international talent from around the world,” he wrote to Alzforum.
Now the future of EU workers in the U.K. is up in the air. As a non-member state, the U.K. might lose access to fellowship programs. The referendum made EU students in the U.K., who currently pay the same rates as British students, worry that they will have to fork over three times as much to meet international tuition rates, Carare said. Travel may become more difficult as well. In the future, some students are likely to need visas in order to move between U.K. and the EU, and transferring students may become impractical. Spires-Jones said that she and colleagues in the EU frequently swap students, and were planning to launch a joint Ph.D. program to encourage further cross-training and dissemination of ideas. “Now I will be cut out of that,” she said.
The referendum has already caused EU scientists to feel unwelcome in the U.K. “The tone of the debate here and the initial response to the outcome of the vote have done significant damage … This will very likely impact the recruitment and retention of talented researchers here,” Livesey wrote. Guerreiro, who hails from Portugal, noted, “It is difficult not to feel that the many hours we give to research could be more useful and appreciated in a different country.” Carare said that she normally gets several emails a week from researchers asking about coming to work in her lab. “Since the vote, it’s all gone quiet,” she told Alzforum. Scientists fear a brain drain from the U.K., because in addition to fewer scientists coming in, U.K. researchers might leave for countries with more favorable funding and working conditions. “[Brexit] will make U.K. science less competitive; established researchers will always opt for open and collaborative systems, and the best students will find other good universities that are easier to apply for,” Guerreiro predicted.
Worlds Apart: Separate Regulations Could Splinter Projects, Slow Trials
Not only U.K. science may be affected. The fallout from Brexit could damage international collaborations and big science projects, many of which are based in the U.K. These include the TRANSEURO consortium to advance stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s disease, based in Cambridge, and the European Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease (EPAD) consortium, which tests interventions at preclinical stages (see Dec 2014 conference news). Numerous other neurodegenerative disease projects are based in the U.K. or rely on collaborations there, such as the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing (OPTIMA), the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study (CFAS), the Genetic FTD initiative (GENFI1), and the Imaging of Neuroinflammation in Neurodegenerative Diseases (INMiND) consortium (see Nov 2014 conference news; Mar 2013 conference news).
Leaders of these projects point out that EU funding underlies their success. EU grants enabled the TRANSEURO consortium to establish the necessary infrastructure and network of scientists across several countries, wrote Roger Barker at University of Cambridge, who coordinates the project. Without such funding, the next generation of stem cell-based therapies may suffer, he predicted. Craig Ritchie at the University of Edinburgh, who leads EPAD, told Alzforum that this consortium will continue to be directed from within the U.K. (see full comment below).
Researchers also wonder how access to information might change. Currently, research data can be freely shared across the EU, but post-Brexit restrictions could hinder international collaborations, Carare said. Other roadblocks may emerge as well. Now, all EU nations share the same regulations for using human material such as tissue and fluid samples, but if the U.K. develops its own set of regulations, collaborations could slow down further, Carare suggested. De Strooper sees a bleak future if these issues cannot be resolved. “It is unclear how long British scientists will continue to be involved in the big European science programs,” he wrote to Alzforum.
For drug trials as well, the U.K.’s exit could create challenges, possibly requiring that separate trials be run in the U.K. and EU if regulations differ. How this would affect pharmaceutical company investment is unclear. Catherine Falcetti at Biogen told Alzforum that for the moment, the company is operating “business as usual” in the U.K. and EU. “We will continue to evaluate the need to amend or adjust our current operations in the U.K. on an ongoing basis, and have a working group in place that will monitor the situation closely,” she wrote. Representatives from several other companies did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.K. is currently involved in 40 percent of trials for adult rare diseases, according to the BBC. Some Brexit proponents have suggested a split from the EU could aid U.K. trials, as EU trial requirements were widely considered overly burdensome, causing a steady decline in the annual number of trials run since 2001. However, the EU process was recently streamlined (see 2014 Nature story). U.K. scientists pointed out that to run international trials, they would have to abide by EU regulations anyway, and Brexit is unlikely to benefit efforts to harmonize trial protocols.
Reuters reported that the European Medicines Agency, the EU equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is currently headquartered in London, will have to move to another city in an EU nation. EMA representative Sophie Labbé declined to comment on this, but said in a statement, “EMA’s procedures and work streams are not affected by the outcome of the referendum.”
Altogether, researchers foresee a more fractured research landscape post-Brexit. “This is the 21st century—we should be about unity and partnership, not division and isolationism,” lamented Stuart Pickering-Brown at the University of Manchester, in an email to Alzforum (see full comment below).
Future Cloudy, Try Again
Although no one knows yet what form the U.K.’s new relationship with the EU will take, likely models incorporate drawbacks for research. If the U.K. remains in the EEA, it will have to pay its share to stay in the common market. This will eliminate cost savings from the withdrawal, predicted Michael Fuchs, a German Parliament member quoted by the BBC. At the same time, the U.K. will lose the influence it currently wields in Brussels to set EU policy. A U.K. Conservative serving in the European Parliament, Vicky Ford, credits U.K. votes with reducing bureaucracy in EU funding and regulations, as reported by the Nature article on Brexit. Thus, ironically, Brexit might saddle the U.K. with a kind of “taxation without representation” in the EU.
Some analysts believe the U.K. is more likely to follow the Switzerland model, which would give it greater freedom from EU rules. Here, too, the U.K. would pay to access the EU market and, since the fee is based on gross domestic product and population, might not see savings. Participation in EU programs would remain contingent on allowing free movement across borders. A 2014 Swiss referendum that favored caps on immigration violated EU agreements and resulted in the country being temporarily shut out of Horizon 2020 and other EU funding programs. Switzerland later negotiated for limited access, but this arrangement is up for review this year and may be suspended if the Swiss implement immigration quotas. Meanwhile, the country’s limited access has already damaged science there, accounting for the drop in Horizon 2020 grants won. The same scenario could occur in the U.K. if politicians insist on closing borders, Galsworthy warned.
Not a single researcher contacted by Alzforum, nor reputable reports published since the vote, saw clear advantages to research in general, or neurodegenerative research in particular, flowing from the vote to leave. Researchers agree it is now more important than ever to pressure politicians to take science into account when negotiating the U.K.’s future course. “British scientists must now work hard to urge policymakers to promote continued scientific collaborations and advise on how to move ahead,” Graeme Reid at UCL wrote in a June 27 Science editorial. The stakes are high. “The science in the U.K. is the best of Europe. It would be a big loss if the U.K. steps away from its responsibility and engagements,” De Strooper wrote to Alzforum.—Madolyn Bowman Rogers