Britain’s Shaky Status as a Scientific Superpower

Researchers say the country’s decision to leave the EU will reverse decades of academic gains.

A general view of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, one of the triumphs of scientific collaborations in Europe that researchers warn will be hurt by Britain’s exit from the EU.  (Pierre Albouy / Reuters)

In the end, the vote that decided Britain’s exit from the European Union revealed a sharply divided electorate. But for many researchers in the United Kingdom, there was never a question of what ought to happen.

In a March poll by Nature, 83 percent of researchers working in the United Kingdom said they wanted Britain to stay in the European Union—12 percent said they favored leaving, while 5 percent were unsure. On Thursday, the voters who wanted Britain to leave the European Union edged out the ones who wanted to remain, 52 percent to 48 percent.

About half of the scientists said in the Nature poll that leaving the European Union is likely to be “very harmful” for scientific pursuits in the United Kingdom. And given Britain’s status as a global scientific superpower, many of them say, what’s bad for Britain is also bad for the rest of the world.

“I think there’s this almost philosophical component to it, which is that people who work in the science community grow up with the concept that through collaboration great scientific insights happen,” Paul Drayson, Britain’s former minister of science, told Scientific American. “And so the very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.”

More than that, though, there are practical considerations. A sizable portion of funding for scientific research in the United Kingdom comes from EU grants, and the United Kingdom is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the union. Between 2007 and 2013, the U.K. received €8.8 billion—the equivalent of nearly $10 billion—for scientific research, according to a 2015 report published by the Royal Society, an independent scientific academy based in London. Drayson and others say it’s unlikely the United Kingdom will be able to negotiate a deal for such funding to continue.

There are researchers who have spoken out in favor of Britain’s exit. “The bottom line is that we put far more into Europe than we get out,” Angus Dalgleish, an immunologist and advocate for Brexit told the BBC in February. “Any difference we can more than easily make up with the money we would save.”

Yet there’s more to the debate than money. More broadly, many scientists fear that international collaboration among researchers from across the EU will become difficult, if not impossible, once Britain leaves the union.

“Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science,” Paul Nurse, the director of The Francis Crick Institute, told the BBC. “That, combined with mobility [of EU scientists], gives us increased collaboration, increased transfer of people, ideas and science—all of which history has shown us drives science.”

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is a key example of the kind of collaboration that EU membership has enabled.

“CERN is now a global lab, with a European core,” Charlotte Lindberg Warakaulle, CERN’s director for international relations, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “CERN—and indeed all large labs and research infrastructures—needs to react to and act within this evolving context. The challenge for all of us is to advance in a globally co-ordinated manner, so as to be able to carry out as many exciting and complementary projects as possible, while ensuring long-term support for fundamental science as the competition for resources becomes ever fiercer on all levels.”

In the past three decades, Britain has cemented its status as a scientific leader—a position that many fear it stands to lose. “With just under 1 percent of the world’s population, the U.K. is home to 3.3 percent of the world’s scientific researchers and produces almost 7 percent of the world’s scientific output and 15 percent of the most highly cited papers,” Victoria Bateman, an economist at Cambridge University, wrote in an op-ed for Bloomberg. “However, this does not mean that Britain can afford to go it alone.” As she and others have pointed out, for instance, internationally co-authored papers have substantially higher impact than those authored by researchers who are all in one country.

Indeed, the consensus on Brexit among those in the scientific community is grim. In March, about 150 scientists, engineers, and economists signed an open letter warning that leaving the EU would be a “disaster” for science and universities. Now, those researchers are waiting to see just how bad it will be.