Impact of Brexit on international mobility of researchers

Like Comment

International mobility is a key component of the research system worldwide. Whether for conferences, short or long-term mobility, international travel facilitates networking and collaborations and offers to researchers access to exclusive skills, knowledge, ideas and techniques crucial for their career development. Not only the researchers benefit from this mobility. Their home and host countries, as well as the Society in general, gain competitive and highly motivated researchers that enrich their systems while creating everlasting global networks. Accordingly, governments, institutions and funding bodies strongly encourage this movement

Reasons for mobility are complex and can differ depending on the career stage of the researchers [1]. However, personal and political circumstances influence this decision. Culture, language, economy, geographic proximity, familial commitments, bureaucracy or workers' rights in the host countries are also strong factors.

Studies about flows of mobile researchers around the globe show some countries to be exporters of researchers and other workforces, and others to be receptors [2]. Within Europe, the United Kingdom (UK) in particular is an attractive country for excellence research, proven by the numerous Nobel prize winners, the number of universities in top positions and its leadership in many research fields. Moreover, its membership within the European Union (EU) offers a very engaging place as a worldwide labour market in any field [3]. The relatively small size of the EU, common rights and values, free movement of workers, and access to cutting-edge tools and prestigious funding programmes, make it easy and attractive for researchers and their relatives to move within this area, decreasing the potential personal mobility obstacles and boosting the international talent recruitment. 

However, in the last few years, the EU has suffered political instability due to the rise of nationalism. In the UK, since the outcome of the Brexit referendum in 2016, scientific and non-scientific organisations have alerted about the risk of severe damage to research disciplines if the UK leaves the EU, with or without a deal. Top research institutes, funding bodies, university representatives, Nobel prize winners or scientific Societies have pointed out the main effects of Brexit on research and suggested constructive measures to mitigate such damage [4,5,6,7,8,9]. All of these organisations, based on studies and consultations among researchers, agree that three sensitive points exist. 

  • Funding access and excellence: Currently the UK invests less than it gets from the EU science budget. The British government have planned national funds to compensate for this loss; however, there are no reasonable indications that the big budget of the EU funding will be replaced. Without a deal, the UK would immediately lose access to EU research programmes until an agreement has formally taken place. Even with a deal, with a transition period foreseeable until 2020, the UK would need to explore new ways to stay aligned with the European research landscape and might have some limitations in the access to these programmes. The ability to attract international talent and projects to the UK, and consequently to keep the excellence levels, is being already seriously compromised in this long Brexit process [10,11].
  • Immigration system and mobility programmes: National policy in EU countries is one of the most important determinants of mobility. Difficulties obtaining visas and work permits and misalignments in benefits and rights between countries are the most important barriers to the mobility of researchers. EU students' enrolment in British universities, particularly at postgraduate level, has fallen since the Brexit referendum [12]. EU countries have already recommended their students to avoid British institutions as a destination for their Erasmus programmes [13,14]  and several surveys have shown that students and researchers consider the UK less attractive for research after the Brexit referendum outcome [15,16]. A guarantee that UK and EU scientists can continue to do research and collaborate without borders and with minimal bureaucracy and cost is vital to avoid brain drain in the UK.

  • Regulations: The UK operates under EU frameworks in many areas of science and technology. These frameworks, often bureaucratic, reduce the regulatory barriers to working across European borders and provide an attractive single market for drug licensing, medical devices, clinical trials, animal testing, biological samples or data protection. When the UK leaves the EU, the British government should ensure an alignment in goods and standards regulation and data protection to do cutting edge research in new medical treatments, diagnostics or medicine supplies to guarantee that patients in the UK and across the EU are able to access the best and most innovative treatments [17, 18]. 

The consequences of those three main points awoke an uncertainty in EU researchers in the UK, potential newcomers and international collaborators, and the Brexit process has already made an impact at a personal and professional level. With no solution in sight and with symptoms of exhaustion, the political instability in the UK and the phagocytosis of the process over other political actions, continue to decrease the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for doing research and science.

New alternatives: However, because of government slowness, organisations and universities in the UK have recently implemented new schemes to mitigate the future effect of Brexit. Some of the biggest names in the British higher education sector have secured alliances with European partners to ensure continued access to research and to maintain student exchanges once the UK leaves the EU [19,20]. Some examples of European pacts are the University of Oxford with four institutions in Berlin, the University of Cambridge with Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, the Imperial College London with the University of Munich or the University of Bristol establishing a new centre in partnership with the Max Planck Society. In the same way, The Wellcome Trust, an important funding body in the UK, has recently opened offices in Berlin and will allow transferring their grants outside of the UK [21,22]. 

Research excellence is underpinned by mobility, resources and regulations, and benefits from long-term stability and planning. The British Government needs to be much clearer about the plans to mitigate these effects and guarantee the conditions to keep the UK as a country to attract international talent and its ability to make scientific discoveries that will benefit not only the UK but worldwide progress.


Sara Alvira-de-Celis

Senior Research associate, University of Bristol

Director of the International Collaborations department at the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK/CERU)