Will Brexit Affect the UK’s Stem Cell Research?

On the 24th June, the UK made the historic decision to leave the EU, and many industries are still waiting to see how this will impact them. Some of the scientific community reacted quickly and with gloom, with the former EU science advisor Anne Glover telling Science Mag that she was ‘very pessimistic’. While it’s still early days, and difficult to predict what will happen in the long term with regards to stem cell research, here are a few areas that might be affected.

Funding

The European Research Council provides funding across the EU to a wide variety of research projects. For the period of 2014-2020, the ERC’s budget is €13.1 billion, with 34% of that budget earmarked for life sciences, including Cellular and Developmental Biology. As it stands, the UK hosts more researchers with starting, consolidator, and advanced grants from the ERC than any other member state.

Leaving the EU doesn’t necessarily mean the UK will lose access to these grants, as people of any nationality can apply for them, but we may need to pay for inclusion. While we are currently a major beneficiary of the ERC, the UK could find themselves struggling, much like non-EU members Switzerland, for inclusion in further schemes.

Over at the Department for Business Innovation and skills, an unnamed official told the BBC that his team were looking at ways to fill in potential shortfalls. “They are trying to gather information on what are the areas of research that depend most on European funding and what the priority areas should be.”

Partnerships with the EU

Science minister Jo Johnson has provided a more positive picture of the effects of Brexit, and in speech given at the Royal Society of Biology he claimed that world-class research ‘will endure’, as we are still part of the European Research Area. His speech also covered the impact of leaving the EU on current students who may be studying science related subjects in the UK, stating that they would still receive student finance.

Others were less optimistic about the result and the impact it might have on research networks. Scientists for EU was set up to campaign for the remain side, and have been vocal about the impact that leaving will have on partnerships and research agreements. They have argued that even as an Associate Member of the EU, the UK might struggle to regain its current position in the ‘political union’.

EU scientists working in the UK

Immigration was a big talking point in the run up to the referendum, and leaving the EU could make it harder for scientists from abroad to work and study here. At the moment, there’s no immediate impact, but schemes such as Erasmus+, which is an exchange program for EU students, will have to be reviewed.

During the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, many in the pro-leave camp suggested a points based system. Therefore, those working in specialist professions such as scientists and researchers might fare better than unskilled workers.

Stem cell regulations

Different EU countries have different regulations when it comes to stem cells. For example, Germany and Italy have strict laws about the use of embryonic stem cells, while the UK has comparatively liberal laws. This means that the UK has become a leader in stem cell research, and UK scientists shouldn’t see their work disrupted by Brexit. However, it does mean that EU scientists who planned to carry out their research in the UK may struggle in future if restrictions on movement are put in place.

We may not know for a while what the long-term effects of leaving the EU will have on stem cell research, or scientific research in general. A report by the Commons Select Committee titled ‘Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research’ will be published in the coming months, and this should tell us more. Whichever way you look at it, there could be a period of uncertainty ahead in terms of stem cell research.

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