As divorce talks between the UK and the European Union get underway, the country could soon be deprived of some of its best scientific minds.

Concerns over funding, residency and legislature may prompt EU scientists to leave the UK, threatening its reputation as a science superpower.

Four of the six highest ranked universities in the world are based in the UK.

These institutions are the foundation of the British research and development (R&D) industry, providing researcher training and exciting innovations – such as the potential to harness graphene technologies for targeted drug delivery in cancer.

Additionally, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry is the largest contributor to R&D in the UK, and is at risk of setbacks stemming from Brexit.

Exodus

The Times Higher Education has released statistics stating that over 25 percent of academics at eight of the nation’s elite universities were from EU countries.

A total 16 percent of academic staff at all universities are EU nationals.

These figures are considerably higher than the percentage of foreign nationals in the UK population overall, highlighting just how heavily academia and R&D relies on foreign talent. Today, seven percent of all employees in the life sciences industry are EU nationals, with a heavy bias towards R&D roles.

These industries could suffer great losses of talent in the coming years; 18 percent of the 31,000 EU staff working in academic R&D in the UK are actively seeking jobs elsewhere, with an even higher percentage considering leaving Britain in the future.

Foreign scientists are highly valued

Prior to the EU referendum the House of Lords published a report stating that maintaining a global pool of researchers is “of critical importance to the UK science community, including academia, business and charities”, and that if this were not achieved the UK would risk losing its status as an R&D superpower.

These views are reflected by a poll of the public conducted after the referendum by the think tank ‘British Future’, stating that 46 percent of people would like to see an increase of skilled workers coming into the UK, and that only 12 percent of people wished to see a reduction.

Will talent be retained?

The government has ensured that all currently approved EU R&D projects will be funded in full, and has allocated an initial sum of £2.4bn to bridge the gap in R&D funding that will be lost when the UK leaves the EU and exits the Horizon 2020 programme.

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This is the biggest research and innovation programme in the EU, and has allocated over €80bn in funding with the aim of securing Europe’s place at the forefront of science.

The Labour Party has also said that if it wins the general election in June the rights of all EU citizens will be ensured on ‘day one’, and has promised heavy investment in R&D.

Communication is key

The key mission for any future government should be to communicate clearly the wishes of the British public to the scientific community, and act upon them with robust funding initiatives and synergy with European counterparts regarding multinational studies and ease of movement for academics.

This would serve to allay fears in the scientific community and restore the faith of EU academics and researchers in British R&D, and therefore assure the ongoing success of the British pharmaceutical and biotech industries.