How will Brexit affect scientific research and the NHS?

Leaving the European Union will bring many changes that could affect scientific research and the NHS. Lucy Trevallion explores the issues.

Big Ben and a union jack flag 

Research crosses international boundaries. From partnerships between top academics to research funding, leaving the European Union (EU) is likely to have a big impact.

The BHF is collaborating with others in the sector and engaging MPs, MEPs and key researchers, to ensure our messages are aligned and medical research is prioritised in negotiations with the EU.

Brexit brain drain?

The pro-remain group Scientists for EU says the referendum result has already negatively affected UK science. In July, it surveyed more than 400 scientists. Mike Galsworthy, the group’s Programme Director, said: “There were 80 scientists saying they or someone they worked with intended to leave the UK, with several having found positions already, and 26 occasions when foreigners had withdrawn applications to work in the UK.”

One reason for this is that, long term, it is not yet clear what the vote means for EU nationals living and working in the UK, or for international collaboration more broadly. The latest UNESCO data shows that 62 per cent of the UK’s research outputs are now international collaborations.

The most important downside of Brexit will be limiting the mobility of world-leading researchers and their ability to work here

Anna Randi
Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, the National Heart and Lung Institute

A report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee in November said that “researcher mobility is a crucial component of the UK’s research and science sector” and called for EU researchers already in the UK to be exempt from immigration controls.

Anna Randi, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the National Heart and Lung Institute, said: “The most important downside of Brexit will be limiting the mobility of world-leading researchers and their ability to work here. My research group is 50 per cent people from the EU. It is inconceivable that we could do our job without collaboration within the EU.”

The majority (83 per cent) of UK scientists wanted to remain in the EU, found a March 2016 poll of nearly 2,000 researchers, carried out by the journal Nature.

But not everyone shares this view. Angus Dalgleish, Professor of Oncology at University of London, and member of pro-leave group Scientists for Britain, said: “International collaboration was working very well before the EU started interfering. What it’s done is made it very EU-centric. It’s interfering with natural global collaborations.”

The question of cash

The UK receives more EU research funding than it contributes. From 2007 to 2013, the UK contributed €5.4bn and received €8.8bn for UK research and development.

While the BHF – the UK’s largest funder of cardiovascular research – does not receive funding from the EU, many researchers that we fund also receive EU funding.

The main benefit of leaving is to escape the EU’s tendency to discourage innovation

Viscount Ridley
House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

According to the latest data, the UK currently holds 15 per cent of all awarded grants from Horizon 2020, which is the biggest EU research programme, worth nearly €80bn. Horizon 2020 is not restricted to EU member states, but the countries receiving the greatest share of funding are member states. Scientists from non-member states can only apply if their country has a specific agreement with the EU. It is unclear if the UK will have access and, if so, how much funding we will receive post-Brexit.

Since the referendum, there have been signs the government recognises the impact Brexit could have on medical research. In August, the Treasury said that while Britain remains part of the EU, researchers bidding for EU funding will have their awards underwritten, even if projects continue after Brexit. In a letter to the Royal Society five days after becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May said: “The government’s ongoing commitment to science and research remains steadfast.”

Viscount Ridley, a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, is positive. “The main benefit of leaving is to escape the EU’s tendency to discourage innovation,” he said. “Also, there are 12 big, effective, European research institutions, which all existed before the EU began.”

What happens next?

It’s now up to our Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, which she promised to do by April 2017, despite a recent High Court ruling saying parliament must debate it first. This will start negotiations on our position outside the EU – a process that may take two years.

Meanwhile, the government will put the Great Repeal Bill through parliament, transferring EU laws and regulations into domestic law. The government will then have the power to repeal or change any of these laws.

The BHF will engage with government to ensure UK medical research thrives. Chloe Watson, BHF Policy Manager for Research and Prevention, said: “We will be working hard to ensure the government prioritises patients and research as it negotiates our exit from the EU. It’s also important that we all do our bit to show the UK remains ‘open for business’ when it comes to medical research.”

Impact on the NHS

There are concerns about how leaving the EU will affect the NHS workforce. Helen McKenna, Senior Policy Adviser at think tank The King’s Fund, said: “Around 55,000 people from the NHS workforce come from the EU, and 80,000 people from the adult social care workforce.”

The Institute for Public Policy Research revealed one in 10 of the UK’s registered doctors is an EU national, and in spring 2016, before the Brexit vote, UK hospitals already estimated they were 15,000 nurses short.

But Dr James Davies, an MP and former GP, who supported leave, says it should be possible for challenges to be “satisfactorily managed... Brexit can also bring advantages to the healthcare sector, but it is difficult to predict these until our yet to-be-negotiated withdrawal arrangements become clearer.”

The House of Commons Health Committee, of which Dr Davies is a member, is looking into the issues around Brexit and will release a report later in 2017.

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