Brexit “breakthrough” draws praise from science policy experts


Giving EU nationals the right to remain in the UK will boost confidence, say observers. 

The rights of European Union scientists in the UK formed part of a statement on Brexit agreed by UK prime minister Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.Credit: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg/Getty

In laboratories throughout the UK, researchers and administrators gave out a collective sigh of relief following a decision to allow EU nationals to remain after the country leaves the union in March 2019. 

The proposals were contained in a joint statement presented on 8 December by the UK prime minister Theresa May and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. 

The document contains specific pledges that a final agreement will allow EU nationals currently living in the UK, and their families, to apply to stay after Brexit, with minimal paperwork. The same deal is offered for UK nationals living in the 27 EU countries. The provision extends to those who move before Brexit takes place in 15 months’ time. 

Robert Lechler, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences in London, said in a statement that he was “delighted” by the reassurance given to EU nationals in the UK. “This declaration provides much-needed assurance, allowing these people to make plans for their future with confidence.” Lechler’s wife, Giovanna Lombardi, is just such an international scientist: she hails from Italy and works as an immunologist at King’s College London. 

The pledges are similar to previous assurances made by Theresa May’s government, says Sarah Main, executive director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering. But she told Nature that the statement might help reassure people about their post-Brexit future. “My perception has been that scientists have been extremely anxious.” 

However Kieron Flanagan, a science and technology policy expert at the University of Manchester, says that the document may not sufficiently soothe such anxieties. “Non-UK EU nationals must feel battered and bruised by the uncertainty of the process,” he says. “And I’m not sure how much this will do to reassure those who might be thinking twice about coming to the UK in the near future.” 

Ian Chapman, chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, says: “I think it looks very positive.” He says the statement signals the UK’s “intent to continue strong collaboration on science”. 

The document states that both sides have agreed principles for handling the UK’s withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community, or Euratom. The UK will become responsible for international nuclear safeguards in the UK, currently overseen by Euratom, and these safeguards will be equivalent to the existing regime. 

But it is silent on the UK’s future role in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion experiment that is being built in southern France, which the UK is a part through its membership of the EU. It also leaves uncertain the future of the Joint European Torus (JET), a largely EU-funded nuclear-fusion facility in Culham, UK. 

Yet fusion researchers may be encouraged by a UK £86 million commitment to fusion research, which the government announced on 7 December, says Chapman. JET’s host laboratory, the UK Atomic Energy Agency’s Culham Science Centre, will host the programme, which is largely aimed at providing facilities for UK companies to secure ITER contracts. “It is a clear demonstration of the commitment of the UK government for fusion and finding a way to continue to participate in ITER,” says Chapman.

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