The science of Brexit

September 2016

When the UK leaves the EU it must defend its scientific edge. Dr Claire McNulty, the British Council’s Director of Science, looks at how much the UK benefits from existing scientific collaboration with Europe, and how to ensure this fruitful collaboration continues in future. 

Science Without frontiers

To maintain its position the UK needs continued investment and, most importantly, access to talented students and researchers from around the world

The UK has been a world leader in science since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th - 18th Centuries. It has won more Nobel science prizes than any other country except the US. Its scientific know-how underpins major breakthroughs in everything from neuroscience to advanced materials and is vital to UK innovation and productivity. When it comes to the commercialisation of research, and to producing high quality articles, researchers in the UK are more productive than their counterparts in the US, China, Germany and Japan . But there are concerns across the sector about the impact on UK science of Brexit. To maintain its position the UK needs continued investment and, most importantly, access to talented students and researchers from around the world. 

At present the UK enjoys a virtuous circle when it comes to scientific research. Our strong research base, international workforce, and highly collaborative practice (over half of all papers are published with an international co-author), means that talented researchers from around the world want to work in the UK, which in turn further increases the quality of the research base. But this all relies on easy mobility of researchers as well as funding. These both now face challenges. Questions still remain in particular on mobility issues such as visas and work permits.

The UK’s research workforce is highly international, with EU nationals making up 16% of Academic staff in UK universities, and 14% of postgraduate research students. UK-based researchers are also highly mobile, with 72% of researchers in the UK having published in another country between 1996-2012. This mobility is beneficial for researchers themselves - it has been shown that internationally mobile researchers are more productive - and research papers produced through international collaboration also achieve a higher impact. UK students and researchers themselves benefit from international opportunities, whether through EU-funded mobility programmes such as the Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Actions, or through the Erasmus+ programme, which sends around 15,000 UK students a year overseas. EU support for researcher mobility is not just limited to EU countries. Amongst the highest profile initiatives for attracting ‘star’ researchers, European Research Council (ERC) grants, are open to people no matter where they are based. Through these, the UK has had the advantage of leading researchers from beyond the EU relocating their research teams here, bringing their expertise with them. This mobility should continue to be supported.

The UK is very successful at competing for EU research funding, and receives comparatively more than it puts in. This amounted to some €8.8 billion from 2006-2015, compared to the UK’s contribution to the EU R&D budget of €5.4 billion in the same period, and amounted to £836 million research income for UK Universities in 2014/15 from EU programmes such as Horizon 2020. Indeed, nearly a fifth (18.3%) of overall EU funding to the UK is spent on R&D. UK Universities get around 11% of their research funding from EU sources, as well as benefiting from the fees of EU students. 

The UK Government has gone some way towards offering reassurance that science remains pivotal to future growth. One welcome development was the recent announcement that research projects successfully gaining funding from the EU’s ‘Horizon 2020’ programme will be guaranteed funding for the life of the project, even if this extends beyond Brexit .

The Government and science and education sectors must now work closely together to secure the longer-term future of British science post-Brexit. The optimal solution would be one in which the UK still has access to EU funding instruments. This could however be hampered by issues around free movement of people, a key aspect of the Brexit negotiations, and has recently proved a sticking point with Switzerland’s participation in Horizon 2020. The UK needs to put plans in place to ensure talented researchers are still able to access funding and can come to the UK without interruption. Working through international networks, such as the Pan-European Euraxess network which supports mobile researchers, will become ever more important to maintaining scientific collaboration in the future.

Science and Progress

A strong research infrastructure supports a prosperous future for the country. This should be an important consideration in the Brexit negotiations

Securing these benefits is important not just for UK science, but also for the UK’s economy and future growth. Over the past years Higher Education and research have contributed to the UK’s knowledge economy, including creating new industries and generating employment. The UK currently leads the world in research productivity. A strong research infrastructure supports a prosperous future for the country. This should be an important consideration in the Brexit negotiations.

Of course, Brexit may offer opportunities as well as challenges to British science. One indirect consequence may be that British scientists seek wider opportunities for collaboration with other scientists around the world. This could be a good chance for the UK to redefine relationships with countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia, India and other Commonwealth countries as well as China, the ASEAN countries and other rising economies. 

The longstanding relationships with partners in Europe should not be allowed to decline and future international engagement in science should focus on developing new partnerships as well as maintaining our existing ties with Europe.


Dr Claire McNulty, Director of Science, British Council


Science has been a core part of the British Council’s work since its foundation 80 years ago. The Council currently helps UK Government deliver the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), BIRAX (Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership), and the £735m Newton Fund to use science partnerships to promote economic development and social welfare with partner countries.