Product has been added to the basket

HoC Science and Technology Committee - Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research

Following on from the UK's vote to leave the EU, the Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry to examine the impacts of leaving the EU on science and research. Details of the inquiry can be found on the committee website.

The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 23 August 2016

1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

2. In writing this response we have drawn on comments and submissions from our members, internal committees at the Geological Society and the wider geoscience community. Our response includes a list of what we consider to be the key risks and opportunities presented to science and research by leaving the EU. There are also some overarching issues that are worth mentioning here. For the science and research sector, uncertainty is the single biggest issue. This includes uncertainty around access to or replacement of funding, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the rights of UK citizens working abroad as well as the future of cross-border and multi-institutional programmes. The ongoing uncertainty in the sector is having a number of impacts on current projects, retention of research staff and recruitment as well as future planning for research projects in the UK.

3. Leaving the EU has a particular impact on the geoscience sector because of the inherently cross-border nature of our science. The geosphere, and the aim of understanding the processes therein, does not stop at national borders and thus leaving the EU has important implications for geoscience research. In addition to the many teams that work across borders on transnational projects, there is also the critical aspect of field work in geoscience that requires students and researchers to travel to the site of the required data or samples. Geoscience, unlike other sciences such as Physics and Chemistry, is distinctive in being characterised by a high degree of idiographic research (that is, research which is to some extend restricted in time and space – focusing on a geological site or a period in Earth history, for example) and so data and sample collection must often occur at the location the rock is found in the crust, for example. For this reason, restrictions on freedom of travel or movement and also loss of EU funding for cross-border projects is likely to have a particularly significant impact on geoscience research.

4. In addition to publicly funded science and research, there will also be significant impacts on R&D and innovation in the industrial sector and on geoscience in the private and regulatory sector. In addition to this inquiry, other committees have launched inquiries on how leaving the EU will impact on the environment, climate change and energy policy but at present none of these cover the important impacts that leaving the EU will have on business, industry and regulatory science. This has resulted in a gap in the inquiry coverage. The impact of Brexit on EU-wide codes and regulatory standards could be significant and the committee may wish to pick up on some of these issues or at least the general concern, given its cross-departmental brief.

5. As a professional qualification awarding organisation, there is uncertainty around how EU-wide professional standards and interoperability will be maintained. We will continue to work with our partners at the European Federation of Geologists to deliver the European Geologist professional title and to develop and maintain Mutual Recognition Agreements to ensure that UK Chartered Geologists are appropriately recognised in Europe and elsewhere, but there is a risk of divergence in professional standards due to leaving the EU.

Risks and Opportunities

Research Funding

6. We welcome the Chancellor’s recent announcement that the UK government will provide substitute funding for existing EU-funded projects following Brexit until 2020. However, there is uncertainty in the sector about how this will operate in practice. Geoscience receives a significant amount of key funding, particularly on cross-border projects and research initiatives, which are at risk from the referendum result. Particularly important funding streams for the geoscience sector are the Horizon 2020, EU ITN and the ERC funding streams.

The EU is also the main funding source for a number of cross-border projects such as CO2 GeoNet (the European Research Laboratory on CO2 geological storage), INTEGER which works to effect gender equality in research and the Fixed Point Open Ocean Observatory network which seeks to integrate European open ocean fixed point observatories. These are inherently cross-border initiatives which would be difficult to replicate from a UK-only position. The geological storage project is of particular importance: since the cancellation of the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) commercialisation competition in the UK in 2015 the EU is now the main source of funding for research and commercialisation projects on CCS. Other research areas that have been reported to us that are particularly vulnerable to loss of EU funding are projects in the area of water and sanitation in development and climate change studies. Therefore, a process and financial framework needs to be established to enable UK researchers to continue their participation in these important and essentially international projects.

7. There is a perception among some in the geological community that there are differences in the types of research that are funded by the EU and the UK government. Many researchers noted that the EU funding streams often fund more innovative, overarching research themes than RCUK, which can be more applied. This could result in the loss of some research themes from the UK research portfolio if this funding is not backfilled.

8. The loss of EU funding for small but important fields of research such as palaeontology could have a particularly negative impact. Smaller research fields need to draw from a talent pool across a much wider area in order to sustain quality. It is possible that through changes to funding or freedom of movement, small but key research fields could become defunct in the UK without resources and the required talent to support them. Developments in such apparently arcane areas of science can have enormous economic importance (e.g. in locating resources).

9. We have received many responses on the negative impacts already being felt since the referendum outcome. Examples include cases of researchers being told they are not desired partners on EU grants any more, UK participants in EU projects being told not to take any leading roles due to uncertainty over future negotiations and researchers being told that their involvement needs to be reduced. There is also significant uncertainty around the next set of grant applications and whether these should be rewritten and redirected to UK funding agencies. One respondent noted an important impact on EU funding applications: in most cases when applying for EU funding, particularly EU ITN proposals, applicants expect the first submission to fail and then will hopefully resubmit successfully a year later. It is untenable to assume that EU funding will be available in two years’ time, without longer term assurances from the government, so starting out on this route may be pointless, meaning that many – both UK and EU nationals - are already starting to look for work elsewhere.

10. There are concerns, particularly from researchers in the devolved nations of Wales and Northern Ireland, that the UK government would not replace funding lost as a result of leaving the EU. Both Wales and Northern Ireland have been successful in winning EU research funding in the past and they could be significantly impacted by the decision to leave the EU.

11. Linked to potential loss of funding is the significant uncertainty around EU funded post-doctoral exchange schemes. This ongoing uncertainty is making it difficult to recruit excellent junior scientists to apply for Fellowships such as the Marie Curie programme in the UK. There are many EU Nationals in the UK who are employed as part of these schemes and there is real uncertainty for these individuals who are concerned about their future and the security of their employment.

12. Some of our respondents noted that leaving the EU could have a positive impact on the training of UK talent and improving the UK skills base and that more university places and research funding would go to UK researchers. It’s possible that this, in the long term, could improve UK talent and skills and reduce the impact of the ‘brain drain’ caused by EU researchers returning to their home countries. Additionally, it was suggested to us that leaving the EU could open up new opportunities for non-EU nationals to come and study in the UK and to strengthen research collaboration ties beyond the EU, although it is not clear how this could be achieved.

13. Ongoing uncertainty is a big factor in the negative impacts and risks to research and innovation, and this makes mitigation difficult. Statements from government on the medium to long term future of access to (or backfilling of) EU research funding programmes, in addition to the short term commitment made so far, would go a long way to settle concerned researchers both in the UK and the EU. In order to maintain the UK’s high standards in research and innovation it is essential that the government backfills any research funding lost as a result of leaving the EU. Failure to do this will put the UK’s excellent research infrastructure at considerable risk.  

14. Possible mitigating actions;

a. UK Government to backfill any funding lost by our withdrawal from the EU.
b. Guarantee the future visa and working status of post-doctoral researchers on funding streams such as the Marie Curie and COFUND Fellowship programmes.
c. Provide more clarity on student finance and future visa and travel status to EU students wishing to apply for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the UK.
d. Explore options with regards to buying into EU funding streams.
e. A longer term statement from the government on the continuation or withdrawal of Horizon2020 and other EU funding streams would be useful to settle uncertainty and allow both UK and EU national researchers to plan accordingly. This is particularly important as cross-border research projects can have a long application and lead-in times and then run for several years.

Loss of expertise, skills and staff

15. Many in the geological community are concerned about the potential ‘brain drain’ that could arise from the combined risks of EU nationals currently working in research in the UK looking elsewhere and the potential drop in EU nationals looking to take up research positions in the UK going forward. This could have a particularly negative effect on early career scientists and researchers both in the UK and across the EU who often rely on successful post-doctoral schemes such as Marie Curie Fellowships and the Erasmus exchange schemes to provide experience early on in their studies or career. Real or perceived loss of access to EU funding and partnerships may also make it more attractive for UK researchers to move outside Europe.

16. We have received several individual accounts of current staff in UK departments considering moving to posts elsewhere or considering moving their research money to other universities in the EU. This is due to widespread uncertainty on continued access to EU funding, eligibility to live in the UK, as well as currency issues. Emigration of staff for any of these reasons could result in bringing big infrastructural projects to a halt, putting long term projects in jeopardy and resulting in a significant waste of time and resources.

17. Possible mitigating actions:

a. Provide assurances of eligibility to live in the UK to EU nationals currently living and working in the UK.
b. Assurances on freedom of movement for EU nationals living in the UK and those planning to come.

Potential impact of travel restrictions

18. The uncertainty around travel restrictions has particular impacts on the geoscience research sector, as well as more broadly across science and innovation. Any additional bureaucracy introduced to travelling within Europe will have unpredictable effects on researchers’ ability to attend research conferences and collaborative meetings. It also poses issues for student exchange programmes such as Erasmus. Additionally, undergraduate courses and much of geoscience research depends on a strong component of field work. Field work is a significant and essential component of any undergraduate training and many UK undergraduate courses include several EU-based field trips during the course. Field work also forms an important component of data collection for the purpose of research. Uncertainty around travel restrictions and additional bureaucracy in moving around the EU will have a detrimental impact to the quality of learning and impede primary data collection in research. As reported in our responses to previous inquiries on immigration, we know that visa requirements and other restrictions on travel often prevent the uptake of degree programmes and participation in placements, conferences and other international activities.

19. Restriction of movement around the EU is also likely to have a negative impact on the diversity of the student and academic body across university departments. Greater diversity is something that has been flagged as a major aim in the new Higher Education Bill and the uncertainty around access to student funding will discourage many EU applicants even before the final terms have been agreed. This, along with the travel restrictions, could reduce the international exchange of ideas and opportunities for learning through discussion and collaborative working.  

Geoscience EU Research Collaboration 

20. All of the risks described above also present a risk to continued successful collaboration across the EU. Many academics expressed concerns to us about the impact on the level of cooperation between British and EU organisations and the potential reduction in influence of the UK in European bodies and consortia. Inter-country research collaboration will continue but there is considerable risk that the UK’s role will be much diminished in the short term and perhaps also in the long term depending on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations.

21. Damage to cross-border working relationships can occur very rapidly but the workload required in re-establishing lost contacts and working partnerships can be enormous and time-consuming. The prevailing uncertainty will make it difficult to maintain and grow these relationships even if collaboration agreements between EU and the UK are eventually negotiated. It is essential that short term damage to working relationships is kept to a minimum so as to reduce the amount of time and effort that may be required to rebuild these links and networks.

22. There will also be an impact on organisations such as the British Geological Survey (BGS) but it is difficult to predict what these might be. In particular the leading role the BGS has played in the EuroGeoSurveys programme could be detrimentally affected. This is a membership programme made up of national geological surveys across Europe which provide European institutions with expert, neutral and practical pan-European advice and information in areas such as natural resources, natural hazards and environmental management. It is also involved in the development of interoperable and harmonised geoscientific data at the European scale and access to geoscientific metadata and data. Such cooperation is vital, irrespective of the UK’s membership of the EU, as natural hazards and environmental phenomena do not respect national boundaries. BGS’s leading role in EuroGeoSurveys could be diminished as a result of the outcome of the referendum and UK influence could be reduced.

23. Leaving the EU also puts the UK’s involvement in large-scale interdisciplinary multi-institutional projects that are initiated with EU funding streams at risk. This could limit the scope of expertise that is brought in on collaborative projects. Examples of large-scale projects in geoscience include the International Seismological Centre (ISC), which is currently based in the UK, the European Plate Observing System (EPOS) and the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) of which the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) is a key sponsor and platform provider. ECORD sponsorship provides members (including the UK through the Natural Environment Research Council) the opportunity to participate in all activities of the IODP programme which has been a very successful cross-border research initiative.

24. A case study in the value of cross-border research projects: The ISC, currently located in the UK, provides a unique global service by collecting together reports of earthquakes from many different national and academic agencies all over the world, and compiling them so that readings from different countries for the same earthquake can be collected together. The data are freely available, widely used and have a high economic and political importance. The economic importance comes from the first stages of estimating the risk from earthquakes to strategic infrastructure anywhere in the world, and from a political perspective the data is used in the monitoring of underground nuclear tests to verify adherence to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The nature of the research means that the ISC employ a number of EU nationals who would be at considerable risk if freedom of movement was revoked. Hosting the ISC is a matter of prestige for the UK, since the ISC, now fifty years old, has its roots in the work of the pioneering UK seismologist John Milne, who collected earthquake information from international observatories in the 1900s and distributed a bulletin.

25. Possible mitigating actions;

a. Seek the best possible settlement in the negotiations over freedom of movement within the EU.
b. Explore options for buying into pan-European research initiatives to continue the UK’s excellence track record in EU-wide research collaboration.


26. As noted above, the current levels of uncertainty in the science and research sectors are already having damaging effects in terms of the perception of the UK’s position and availability on many key aspects that are essential for effective research collaboration. We have received a lot of comments detailing the negative perceptions and views from EU reviewers and panellists regarding the awarding of EU funding. In gathering information from members of the geoscience community we have heard many instances of reduced involvement of UK researchers in EU funding applications and only one instance where a UK scientist was accepted onto an EU research grant.

27. We also received many comments regarding the potential knock-on effects of leaving the EU on the makeup of the UK. The question of Scotland’s continued presence as part of the United Kingdom looms large. Many respondents feel that Scotland leaving the UK would have a far more damaging effect on the UK’s economy as well as its science and research sector than leaving the European Union.

28. At an international level, one respondent noted that leaving the EU will have a negative effect on UK/China relations in the HE/research sector. This is because diplomatic and consular support for UK students and researchers in many Chinese cities is often supported by other EU nations which collectively have a greater diplomatic presence than any one country could sustain. This support is at risk from the decision to leave the EU and will hamper the work of UK citizens.  


29. Changes to currency exchange rates since the vote has had negative impacts on the purchasing of essential technical research equipment. Much of the research equipment used in the geoscience sector is manufactured in the EU and so the devaluation of the pound has made it more difficult for research groups to afford the required equipment. Against a backdrop of squeezed budgets, this is making high quality research more difficult. Sustained low sterling exchange rates would exacerbate the problem.

30. There are concerns around potential changes to the rules governing the import and export of materials that are used for sampling and research. In geoscience, the transport of samples and primary data across borders is an essential part of successful research.  

Mitigating Actions

31. Anything that the government can do to reduce uncertainty, offer clarity and address negative perceptions across any or all of the aforementioned risks would be very useful in addressing concerns and improving confidence in the sector, and reducing the potential impact of loss of talent and worsening external perceptions of the UK.