Brexit and Ecology

The last three years have seen some serious political upheaval in the European region, Brexit being perhaps the pinnacle of that. It’s an issue on which everyone has an opinion and which no one seems to have any answers to. So I thought that this week I’d try to put together a synthesis of sorts on how Brexit will possibly affect the ecological science community. Below are a series of links to articles that describe the affect of Brexit on, and responses by, the ecological community.

A brief reminder of how Brexit will affect EU and UK science 

This article talks about the international cooperation between the EU and Britain. I think the most important points here are a) that UK researchers will still be able to participate in Horizon 2020, a huge European research initiative with over 80 billion euros in funding and b) that UK researchers will not have access to European Research Council grants after Brexit goes through. The economic loss alone will be crippling, with European grants currently providing 12% of the income for UK Universities, and the UK gaining a surplus of around 3.4 billion euros in grants from the EU.

Warning Against No Deal Brexit

At the start of the year, four educational associations, which together represent over 150 Higher Education facilities in the UK, wrote an open letter warning against a No Deal Brexit. The letter expressed concerns about the uncertainty with which many students and staff are currently faced, and requested assurance that the loss of ERC grants would be replaced domestically. I’m no financial expert, but that seems unlikely.

Will ecology be the first casualty of Brexit?

In light of the fact that much of Britain’s environmental protection laws came from EU legislation, the UK has rushed to put together something in its place. The Ecologist summarizes the first draft of that proposal.

Influencing the future of UK fisheries

If you want more insight into how some of the Environmental Acts are currently being redrawn and reconsidered, I highly recommend this article by Dr. Abigail McQuatters-Gollop. Abigail was recently in British Parliament providing evidence on the new Fisheries Bill. I will be speaking with Abigail in depth on the impact of Brexit in the scientific community in May.

CIEEEM’s Key Brexit Links and Documents

If you want a more extensive list of recent documentation surrounding the future of environmental policy in the UK, you can check out this list of links, which currently documents most related articles up until September last year.

And finally, I’ve had the chance recently to speak to two British professors, Bill Sutherland and Bob O’Hara, who were good enough to share some of their thoughts on how Brexit is already affecting the European science community. I’d also recommend reading the recent correspondence in Nature on the future of biosecurity that Bill contributed to here.

Traveler Digital Camera

Brexit could affect the UK’s biosecurity, with many decisions on environmental policy being made at the EU level (Image Credit: Derek Dye, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bill Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Cambridge University

It is a serious issue. One of the concerns I’m involved with at the moment is the future of biosecurity, the risk of diseases in crops, cattle, that sort of thing. We have a whole set of structures related to biosecurity that we’ve built up over time. And you can’t just replace them or move them. So the European Court of Justice is essential for many international agreements relating to biosecurity. If there’s a disagreement, you have to have a deciding body. So we’ve got this huge ecosystem of processes and mechanisms which we’ll have to move outside of Europe. Now if there’s a hard Brexit that’s impossible, mind bogglingly impossible. If there’s a planned Brexit in a couple of years, it’s still pretty hard to imagine how we’d create that in that sort of time. It is a major issue.

In terms of the scientific community, we’ll have to decide whether or not we’ll sign up to various scientific programs for funding or joint research. Norway isn’t part of the EU, but it pays for those programs and is essentially a full member, we might follow that example. But at the moment, we’re creating a very chilly environment for scientists and academics that don’t have a British passport. And that is worrying and unpleasant. Lots of people have been working there for a long time, but now there’s massive uncertainty and lots of people are finding that disquieting. Because if you’re going to settle somewhere, why go for the complexity of being in Britain when you could go somewhere more stable? It’s extremely worrying.

Bob O’Hara, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

It’s already creating huge problems. There’s been talk going around in Europe for the last year or so about people being taken off projects because of Brexit. The thought being that there’s no point in trying to send a collaborative application in with someone from the UK because they might just get kicked out of the country!

That uncertainty at the moment is a big thing. Last week a colleague mentioned on Twitter that they’d tried to order something from Copenhagen in the UK, and they wouldn’t deliver, because the sample wouldn’t arrive there until after Brexit, so they had no idea whether it would arrive or ever be returned.

So in the short term it’s having a huge effect. And of course it depends on how they leave. They could go for the Norway model, which is basically just the same as nowadays but we don’t send any politicians to Brussels so we don’t get any say in how the decisions are made. That would be one possibility. In that case it might be okay once we get over that initial turmoil. It could be the no-deal Brexit, in which case who knows what’s going to happen, we don’t even know if we could fly out of the country. I mean I had a meeting at the end of March, and I made sure I flew before Brexit, because I could be flying/trying to fly on the day of Brexit and not be able to get out. That’s an extreme example, but it’s a possibility. It could make travel more difficult. Can people get in or out of the UK? If you’re Norwegian, will you need a visa? These all depend on how Brexit goes. Who knows? So at the moment the uncertainty is the problem.