A PhD student’s views on the EU referendum

Last week the UK decided to leave the EU. Like many others (16,141,241 people to be exact), I voted to remain in the EU. One of the main reasons I personally voted to remain is because I wish to pursue a career in academia, which the EU helped facilitate up until now. As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, I am on the receiving end of many benefits that the EU provides for scientific research in the UK. A high majority of researchers also see these benefits, with 83% of UK academics wishing to remain in the EU (source: Nature). The exit from the EU has consequences for certain aspects of UK research:


1. Movement of academics between the UK and EU countries

Academics often move institutions and countries to further their career, especially at the beginning of an academic career when it is crucial to expand on research experience. This not only benefits academics themselves, but also ensures that university students (undergraduates and postgraduates) receive the best teaching from a large pool of academics at the forefront of their research field. Academics also move to countries outside of the EU, but there is generally more fluidity to move within the EU because of fewer restrictions.

Without this freedom of movement, opportunities for UK researchers to work within Europe may become limited. This could put pressure on academic careers in the UK, with more people going for a finite number of academic job positions and an increase in difficulty to obtain tenure (i.e. a permanent job in academia, rather than a post-doctorate research position or short-term contract). Also fewer researchers from the EU will want to work in the UK because of the increase in restrictions and the general unwelcoming feeling that many migrants have experienced since the referendum (see here for examples of unequivocal racism since the EU referendum).

2. Academic collaboration with the UK

Scientific research is rarely carried out by one person and it is uncommon to see less than 3 authors on a published scientific journal article nowadays. This is because each author can bring different expertise to a study, encouraging multi-national collaboration for the purpose of producing high-quality research. Academics often need to meet face-to-face in order for this collaboration to thrive. This is usually done at large international conferences, but smaller meetings are also often needed to focus on particular ideas. Within the EU, such meetings are easier to set-up as there are fewer restrictions on the movement of people, facilitating easier movement of knowledge. Meetings with collaborators in the EU may be more difficult to organise and more expensive in light of the UK leaving the EU.

One of the large disadvantages of the EU to academic research is that it excludes those countries outside of the EU, and the UK will soon be on that side. It is uncertain whether UK research will improve or decline with this because although it may be more difficult to move knowledge across the EU in the future, it may also become easier to share knowledge with countries outside the EU.

3. Future funding of UK research

The UK has a fantastic reputation for producing high-quality research, which is partly due to its sufficient funding. UK universities currently receive approximately 16% of their total research funding directly from the EU (source: Nature). My PhD (along with a large majority of others in the School of GeoSciences here at the University of Edinburgh) is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which, in turn, is funded by the EU. Leaving the EU means we will no longer have access to such funding.

This does not necessarily mean we will be missing a 16% chunk of funding forever. It is likely that this funding will be found from elsewhere (hopefully… all fingers and toes crossed). The crucial point will be finding and securing this funding quickly to ensure the continuing quantity and quality of UK research. If this gap is too long then the effect on research output could be irreversible.


If you are frustrated by my vague language in the previous paragraphs, you have every right to be. Like many other aspects of this country, academia and research will change if the UK leaves the EU (which will happen when Article 50 is triggered) but the outcome remains uncertain, which is scary. I have tried my best to describe the current situation pragmatically and avoid adding fuel to the fire. Before the EU referendum, I was entertaining the idea of leaving the UK after the completion of my PhD to continue my career in academia. If the worst-case scenario occurs then that idea is highly likely to become a reality.

Much of the commentary on the result of the EU referendum has been incited by fear, which was initiated by campaigns that used fear to sell their causes. This fear is what has created hostility between friends, resentment between generations, and incited this current wave of racism and hatred that the population is experiencing. It is critical at this point in time not to act out of fear. I think this Guardian article puts it well with the title ‘do not mourn, organise’ – keep your finger on the pulse, be aware of what is happening, and take action where it is needed. And I think that is a good note to end on.

Disclaimer: All opinions are my own and not the views of my colleagues or the University of Edinburgh.
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