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UK researchers excluded from European research network due to Brexit

Image: Shutterstock/Delpixel
Image: Shutterstock/Delpixel

Stepping up to become the head of a physics department is a major challenge at any time, but the current external situation is a world away from the landscape on day one, only nine weeks ago.

Since the decision of the UK electorate to leave the EU, the political earthquake and its aftershocks have been dramatic, resulting in a shiny new prime minister, the divergence of science funding and universities into separate government departments, and the unleashing of xenophobia in society.

Brexit provides higher education institutions, and specifically UK science, with serious medium-term financial challenges, despite assurances from the science and universities minister Jo Johnson and his new boss Theresa May in her letter to Sir Paul Nurse, which includes the promise that “we are not turning our backs on European scientists”.

Within a few days of the referendum, academic colleagues from other EU nations were expressing legitimate concern about their long-term prospects within the UK. Senior management here have endeavoured to provide reassurances, but uncertainty still reigns a full month on from the referendum. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are simply too many unknown unknowns.

On the long night of results following the vote, Sheffield provided a preview of the national mood, voting 51% in favour of leaving the EU. Physics in Sheffield is typical of other mid-sized Russell Group science departments, with 20% of our academic staff and researchers originating from other EU countries, and close to 20% of our research income over the past five years resulting from European funding.

Much of the impact of Brexit on UK research has focused on continued access to European Research Council funding, which has helped to plug the shortfall in funding resulting from the flat-cash RCUK settlements over the past decade. But collaboration between scientists across Europe is also under threat. Carlos Moedas, European commissioner for research, science and innovation reminded the audience at last week’s EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester that: “Horizon 2020 projects will continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality. So I urge the European scientific community to continue to choose their project partners on the basis of excellence.”

This laudable goal contrasted sharply with a message forwarded to me by one of my colleagues from the lead coordinator of a planned European Network consortium which made the situation on the ground crystal clear: “I regret to inform you that in the end we decided to not include your group in the consortium. The main reason of this decision concerns the Brexit and all the incertitude it brings. It may seem a very drastic decision, but we decided to ‘remove’ the problem at the base.”

The EU referendum has cast a huge shadow, with my personal priorities focused on three aspects: people, people and people.

First, an unqualified commitment must be given to research staff from other EU nations working in the UK that they be allowed to remain indefinitely. These staff are here because they were the best applicants for their jobs, so losing them would reduce the quality of UK science, despite the assurance from our new prime minister of a “positive outcome for UK science as we exit the EU”.

Second, any shortfall in science funding must be underwritten should UK-based researchers be denied access to Horizon 2020 funding. Otherwise ERC holders – our star researchers – will consider transferring their grants to other EU countries, or look elsewhere. Universities may be able to underwrite Horizon 2020 funded PhD studentships extending beyond 2018, but can’t do the same for EU funded research associates.

Finally, the government must be proactive in countering the view that the UK is not welcoming to international researchers. Concerns about the UK restricting the mobility of scientists after Brexit lay behind the decision to uninvite my colleague from the proposed Network. International students enrich our campuses and cities, and I am immensely proud that the University of Sheffield has been proactive in embracing international students through our We Are International campaign.

These issues won’t be addressed without direct engagement with politicians, so whether you intend to write to your MP, contribute to the IOP submission to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry or interact in another way please do so, to minimise short-term damage to UK science, with potentially long-term consequences.

Becoming head of department hasn’t all been doom and gloom. One high point involved giving a congratulatory speech to new University of Sheffield graduates two weeks ago, especially having served as departmental director of learning and teaching over the past four years. Still, as I emphasised to students celebrating the end of their studies, challenges lie ahead for them in their future careers – and for universities across the UK.

  • You can read more about the emails sent to Paul over at Nature News.
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Paul Crowther

Paul Crowther

Paul Crowther is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Sheffield.

He has co-authored a monograph devoted to hot luminous stars and starburst galaxies, co-authored more than 130 journal papers, including the identification of the most massive stars currently known in the nearby universe.

He completed a PhD in astrophysics from University College London in 1993, held a Royal Society University Research Fellowship over 1998–2006, and has received telescope awards with Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel, ESO and Gemini as principal investigator.

He is active in outreach activities, including as a contributor to a YouTube channel Deep Sky Videos. He is currently director of learning and teaching and interim head of department for the University of Sheffield's Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Paul Crowther

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7 thoughts on “UK researchers excluded from European research network due to Brexit

  1. Isn’t such discrimination, based purely on nationality, a violation of EU rules on Science funding? So long as the UK is still part of the EU, which it is, all UK Scientists should have as much right to EU funding as a Scientist of any other EU Member State. Whomever it is that dropped the UK Scientist from the collaboration, should not have done do; is this not illegal under EU law? Not to mention that a large part of the €78 billion Horizon 2020 fund has come from British taxpayers. Is there no legal action that can be taken here?

  2. This may be illegal, but I completely understand the mindset of the applicants. We live in an age where funding bodies and reviewers look for any little reason to criticise collaborations and feasibility. So, why risk a proposal that takes so much effort to compile when there is no guarantee from the British government about *anything* at this point in time. I relate to this being a part of a collaboration between English and Scottish universities, funded by a British charity. We can only keep our fingers crossed that Nicola Sturgeon does not trigger another Scottish referendum. The only thing to do as British researchers is to put our heads down and prepare for the consequences of our own actions.

  3. I don’t see any way legal action could be taken because this is not a law-related decision. Consortia can freely choose who they collaborate with. U.K. scientists have actually done disproportionately well in this regard, a testament to their scientific excellence, internationalism and (probably a bit) their language competency advantage. It would be a different thing if it could be proven that evaluations of grants had been effected, but this is just a consortium. I don’t agree completely with the decision, but if U.K. scientists would have to be booted out of the consortium at some point then this would adversely affect the performance of the whole group (and future possibilities). As another note for the U.K., generally members on the outskirts of the H2020 programs do a bit worse than one would expect based on their scientific excellence level (i.e., Norway and Switzerland), probably because they are not fully engaged in designing the programs or the funding calls themselves. The call texts can be sometimes incredibly detailed in laying out what the application should address (at least in the biosciences). This means that unless you have exactly the same kind of a team (or consortium) as the one that designed the call it can be difficult to win the grant.

  4. I thought I was European and I still am. One view or many can not change that. I work on International Standards, for example your mobile phones and internet so they will work anywhere on this planet and saves us some cost on roaming and talking/texting/email. Just a physicist at heart, but its a big one

  5. Dear Paul

    Please forgive my very general approach here but I felt this was the only way for you and your associates to see this very important information, as I could not see individual email addresses. I am not a scientist or researcher myself. Rather am one of the devastated 48% who highly value and hugely admire the work you and your colleagues do. I came across your article through social media, and the subsequent comments from your associates so I wanted to share this information with you.

    Britain’s science minister, Jo Johnson, has set up a specific email address ( for researchers to send him stories of lost opportunities in scientific due to Brexit.

    They are using it to compile an evidence base of specific cases of perceived disadvantage for UK participation in European Schemes and Programmes so that they can take an overview of whether there is an issue in this area. They have asked for a telephone number to be included with any emailed stories.

    I came across the article in a US paper. So not sure how widely known this info is UK side. I have tested the email address and can confirm that it works so I hope you will share your stories.

    Best regards


  6. Being myself a scientist working outside the UK, I can see the rationale of the consortium members who decided to drop the UK-based partner. For them it’s a question of getting their grant application funded and they decided to play it safe by not including UK-based scientists. They have probably sensed that some reviewers may now be biased against british scientists (unlawfully so as UK still contributes to the european science budget) and they decided not to risk it. They have every right to do so and I fear that many consortia in the future will adopt this “play it safe” approach, even if the fear of biased reviews turns out to be totally unjustified.

  7. This is a very typical British approach to the problem i.e. they focus on their personal disadvantage completely disregarding the bigger picture. As an ex-british scientist how has just moved on the nice side of the channel due to Brexit, I completely related to the view of the consortia people – there’s absolutely NO reason whatsoever to risk a 20-30 million euro grant which took two years two write and so much effort to prepare for the sake of the scientific community who’s voice is completely muffled these days. Instead of screaming “disadvantaged” or “illegal” or “bias” the UK academic community should look into two main aspects for their recent PR approach:
    1. UK academics didn’t organize efficiently to promote the European values and ideals. I have worked for 8 years in a Russel Group university and I have noticed an absolutely incredible discussion of a 80 years old professor, head of the department who stated that he voted Leave because “he was afraid of the germans and he is sure that the germans are trying to ruin UK”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, such xenofobia and bad behavior from someone like him. I felt really bad and ashamed for all my German colleagues. The fact that Academia in UK was so silent and unclear is unforgiving. The entire academia behaved exactly as Corbyn: we want to stay in, but we don’t want to put in any effort whatsoever.
    2. UK has turned into an anti-science, populist, pseudo-social country. When all the research and all the expertise which was clearly saying that Leave would be bad and Remain would be good was silenced by populist, neo-apartheid and xenophobic discourse, then you know you are in big trouble as a country. There is absolutely no reason to invest in the educational and research system of a country who has no will to implement and harvest the products of the research and educational efforts. It’s as simple as that. Why would they want to partner with colleagues from a country which has no priority in implementing the policies and the results of the research effort? UK mindframe is broken. I have noticed this for the past two years. It got worse and worse.
    This being said, my sincere recommendation would be to start fixing YOUR system first. Yes, because now is YOUR system, not our system anymore. Stop saying that we are the 48% because this is not how democracy works. Democracy is a dictatorship of the majority. It’s not a perfect system but it’s the best we have. Assume the decision your fellow countrymen took and fix YOUR system before criticizing our system. After 8 years I’m quite tired of the British moralization of international affairs. You are not a great country as your name states, you are a country like any other, with good and bad. But before criticizing other countries for their actions and decisions, look in the mirror and remember: apartheid, colonialism, the state of the Middle East due to your political-based colonial interests, the state of the India-Pakistan border due to your lack of democratic interest in your colonies, the fact that Blair was the main European supporter of the Irak war and so and so on.
    You wanted your “sovereignty” back? You have it. Now take it and leave us alone and stop moaning and crying for mommy when the children at the playground don’t want to play with you anymore because your dad (Cameron) took some really bad decisions which resulted in everyone becoming poorer and less secure and your mom (May) keeps slanting everyone else’s parents because:1. They are either Germans/Austrian/French and hence cannot be trusted. 2. They are either Polish/Romanians/Bulgarians/Spanish/Italians/Greek and hence are poor. 3. They are either Finnish/Baltic Countries/other Scandinavian countries and hence they are too close to Russia to be trusted.
    Keep Calm and Sober Up.

    Kind Regards,

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