How to Stop the Brexit Brain Drain

A man leaves a bank at main train station in Munich, Germany, June 24. Britain's Brexit referendum could result in a brain drain. Michaela Rehle/Reuters

There is no point in denying it. This morning I am feeling dispirited and disappointed. I am a clinical academic psychiatrist in a British university, which means like most of my colleagues I have three main roles: research, teaching and clinical work in our NHS. And when I think of the possible post Brexit future of each of those three roles, my spirits sink.

I am not alone—most of my colleagues feel the same way this morning, and no amount of putting a brave face on it will hide our concerns for the future. A recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology committee showed that the life sciences sector in the U.K. employs 200,000 people with an annual turnover of £60 billion and is closely tied to the EU. Of course that is not going to vanish post Brexit, but it’s likely to take a substantial hit. That’s a lot of people who woke up this morning rather more worried than when they went to sleep.

Yes, our disappointment is partly about the money. U.K. science is strong, and attracts substantial funding from the EU—£8.8 billion between 2007 and 2013—on top of what we put into the budget. Even before the vote, those with the ears to the ground were talking of interactions with EU funders and colleagues suggesting that if we thought it would be business as usual post Brexit, we should think again.

I know of colleagues who do consultancy work on science or medical policy for various EU organizations who had quietly registered company offices in other EU countries “just in case,” which has turned out to be a wise precaution. But for those of us with active scientific grants and networks, it will not prove so easy. It is hard to think of a scenario in which we receive more grants from the huge EU science budget, and only too easy to think of the converse.

But it’s about much more than money. Most of us in the business of research are used to the slings and arrows of funding—you win some, you lose some. Bad news is greeted by cursing, the throwing of coffee cups and general tantrums, but these soon subside, and you move on to finding a different funding source, hopefully with referees less blinkered and more likely to recognize the essential genius of one’s proposal than the last ones. But this feels worse.

Science by its nature is about collaboration. No other EU country leads on as many collaborations as we do. I have lost count of the number of scientists this morning lining up to say strong research partnerships with EU-based scientists will be essential for the future of British science—it would be easier to list those who haven’t. At the moment we are unclear how to sustain these in the new world that we are moving to, but sustain we must.

Scientific research also does not like barriers. As Sir Venki Ramarkrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said today, “many global challenges can only be tackled by countries working together and it is easier to work together when policy and regulation are consistent.” Many of us have spent long weeks and months trying to tackle the barriers against the flow of ideas and people across the EU—it is disheartening to think that these barriers will start to reappear again.

So what should we do? The first thing concerns the workforce. Since the result became clear, I have received emails from my non U.K. EU colleagues working in institutions across the U.K., seeking reassurance that it will all be OK, and they are not facing imminent deportation. I have heard of no such plans, and think them unlikely.

Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of NHS England, has just made a statement reassuring the 55,000 non U.K. EU nationals who work in the NHS that their work in valued. We need something similar to reassure our non clinical medical science workforce (20 percent of whom are non U.K. EU nationals) That’s a start, but a firm commitment to this from whoever emerges on top following David Cameron’s resignation this morning is needed urgently. As I wrote that sentence, with the words “non U.K. EU nationals,” my heart sinks as I realize that it will not be long before the words “EU nationals” will suffice to describe this group. There is also a particular urgency to sort the fees and visa status for all our EU national students currently studying here. Our universities are acutely aware of the anxieties of this group, and are already calling for an early government statement on this. We need to make it clear that we are still open for business.

And that’s the biggest problem. We don’t just need to retain the EU nationals that we have, we need to attract them to come to our universities in the future, to work in our life science sector, and to take jobs in our NHS and social services. They may be wondering if they are really welcome. They are.

It was not all doom and gloom last night. I have friends who are genuinely pro-Europe but just don’t like the EU. And 75 percent of those under 25 voted for Remain.  Those of us who still believe that, whether we are “in” or “out,” our future remains intertwined with that of our neighbors, can take heart from that.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely is chair of psychological medicine at King’s College London and president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.