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Brexit vote did not increase brain drain from the UK, study finds


But it did lead to higher likelihood of EU-origin researchers leaving and UK-origin researchers returning

The UK’s controversial referendum on exiting the EU did not lead to a rise in academic brain drain from the country in the years before the exit came into effect, according to a study.

But it did lead to more researchers who started their career in the EU leaving the country, and to more researchers who started their career in the UK staying or returning, essentially resulting in more segregation of the two scientific communities.

“This may create more distance between the two academic systems and may have detrimental effects for science,” said Emilio Zagheni, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, who worked on the study.

Not many statistical data have been made available on how the 2016 referendum—which paved the way for Brexit in 2020—influenced academic migration, even as many commentators at the time feared, and many still do, that the move would harm science in the UK.

Zagheni and his colleagues have now analysed affiliation information indexed in the Scopus academic database for a new paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

They looked at changes in country of residence for 45,316 researchers with at least one UK-affiliated publication throughout their career and whose institutional affiliation could be identified between 2013 and 2019. They then analysed mobility patterns of researchers based on their academic origin, defined as country of first publication.

The team found that the probability of an EU-academic-origin researcher leaving increased by about 86 per cent after the vote and before it came into effect. The probability of a UK-academic-origin researcher leaving, meanwhile, decreased by 14 per cent, while the probability of a UK-origin researcher returning increased by about 65 per cent.

“What was surprising to us was that during a relatively short period of time, right after the Brexit referendum, there was already a significant change in patterns of migration of scholars,” Zagheni said.

The findings have alarmed some in the sector.

“This study adds to growing evidence that a number of factors are driving changes to the UK’s academic workforce, including the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as well as wider economic and geopolitical circumstances,” said Rosalind Lowe, head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business.

“Research, innovation and teaching are all driven by people and the UK’s success relies heavily on both growing and attracting talent. Evidence that talented academics from the EU may be considering leaving the UK must be taken seriously by policymakers.”

Labour’s shadow science minister, Chi Onwurah, described the results as “disheartening”.

“For researchers to thrive in Britain, we need a government that supports them and understands their importance,” she said. “However, due to this government, we are on the verge of losing participation in the €95 billion Horizon research funding programme, which would be a disaster for UK researchers.

“Just the uncertainty over Horizon means that academics and researchers are already losing out on collaborative opportunities, they are leaving international projects and being told to re-locate. Labour’s position is clear, Britain must make Brexit work, and international research opportunities, such as Horizon, are part of keeping Britain as a world leader in research.”

Long-term changes

Zagheni and his co-authors—researchers at institutions in Germany, Italy and Canada—have several suggestions for counteracting the apparent migration trends.

They wrote that “explicit changes in science collaboration policies between the UK and the EU are needed”, including the development and funding of new collaborative programmes.

They said there had been some “positive” developments for collaboration policy, such as the UK signing a cooperation agreement for Horizon Europe—though that agreement is yet to be fully implemented.

But there had also been “negative” developments, including the UK not participating in the EU’s Erasmus+ mobility scheme and developing its own replacement, the Turing scheme, which does not offer placements for teaching and college staff from the EU.

“Developing and funding new programmes that favour visiting periods abroad for productive international scholars, including for their families, should become a priority to help compensate for the barriers to the circulation of researchers between the EU and the UK that Brexit has erected,” they wrote.

Mobility reductions

Reflecting on the study, a representative of the UK science trade union Prospect said they were alarmed by post-Brexit mobility reductions affecting research.

“The UK has nurtured a world-leading scientific research community over many decades, with access to international funds and talent being key to our success in this field,” Prospect’s deputy general secretary Garry Graham told Research Professional News.

“Reduced international mobility of world-leading scholars—both to and from the UK—damages scientific research and threatens the UK’s position in the world.

“The government must ensure the UK is the destination of choice for top-class scientists and do all it can to retain access to Horizon Europe research funds.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy declined to comment.