Why Brexit matters for more than just European Research

In his guest post, Lewis Bartlett considers some of the unintended consequences of the vote to the leave the EU for international collaborations and early career researchers.


Understandably, and hopefully without needing much introduction, UK scientists expressed many concerns over the potential impacts of a ‘Leave’ result following the EU referendum. While funding has received much of the discussion limelight, potential for collaboration is arguably of a bigger concern. Collaborative potential cannot easily be replaced by our home government, and is of especially keen importance for ecologists. Nature doesn’t respect country boundary lines, and therefore our research frequently needs to cross them too.

Undoubtedly, the planned exit from the EU will negatively affect EU collaborations – and this has understandably been the focus of most of the discussion. However, there has been little mention of non-EU collaborations. Most attention given to these collaborations has been in the context of the need for their expansion following the ‘Leave’ result – unfortunately, the result may negatively affect these collaborations as well – and my own experiences on this shed light on how.

Less science for your money

Uncertainty surrounding British science, coupled with instability of British financial systems, leads to wariness of collaboration from the perspective of external scientists, and contraction or abandonment of current projects. The drop in the value of the pound sterling in particular has a double-edged impact. British research money now buys less abroad – a particularly difficult problem for projects which are already underway, and must have their later stages scaled back as previous budgets no longer add up under new exchange rates – for example ‘per reaction’ costs of lab work abroad are now higher.

Additional to this, living costs for researchers payed on British grants who must work abroad are now effectively much higher – the aftermath being equivalent to a 15% salary cut. This is likely to disproportionately affect lower-salaried early career researchers (ECRs), dissuading them from taking on collaborative work. Collaborative institutions often have minimum pay requirements for visiting researchers – and a 15% cut drops people below that threshold, leading to withdrawal of people’s legal right to continue their research.

Uncertainty for early career researchers

These negative impacts are already happening and will likely be felt more strongly by ecologists than other scientists. Experiments and projects in ecology are often long term – loss of collaborations due the vote now will still be felt 3 to 4 years down the line. Whilst I don’t wish to play the role of doomsayer, my own work and situation demonstrates these effects as already manifesting. As an ECR half-way through an evolutionary ecology PhD collaborating with 3 US institutions, my science was not a clear risk case when the referendum swung by. But the instability listed above mean that the field experiments we started over two years ago may now lack the funds to have matched molecular work. As my work is on real-time evolution, time to adjust is not available. Additionally, my hosting US institution has a minimum income threshold which I fell under following the weakening of the pound Sterling – risking my visa and legal right to do research in the US. I’ll skip over the personal stress of a 15% reduction in effective spending, but I’m sure other ECRs can exercise their imagination.

As much as we try to move on and make the best of a bad situation, it must be stated that prospects of increasing collaboration outside the EU may be negatively affected by unforeseen consequences of the referendum result. We cannot be naïve to the damage that is already being done, and the stressors our ECR ecologists are put under.

Lewis Bartlett is a 3rd-year PhD student in evolutionary ecology funded by NERC with University of Exeter. His research is part of a collaborative project on infectious disease evolution and honeybee declines with Univeristy of Exeter (UK), Heriot-Watt (UK), University of Georgia (USA), Emory University (USA), and UC Berkeley (USA). All of his field work and lab work is USA-based, as is half of his supervision. Follow Lewis on Twitter @BeesAndBaking.

Lewis contributed to our input into the Royal Society of Biology’s response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the implications and opportunities of leaving the EU for UK science. Read the full response.