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As Brexit Negotiations Unfold, UK Researchers and Institutions Remain Worried About Coming Changes

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – More than a year after the UK voted to leave the European Union, uncertainty and concern about the possible effects of Brexit prevail among genetics and genomics researchers and their institutions.

"One year on, we are almost in a similar position as to what we were in a few days after the referendum," said Julia Wilson, associate director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "There are very few facts that we can work on. But also, that void is becoming a problem — if we lose scientific staff, if we can't retain them, or we can't recruit the right staff, this could have a negative effect on UK science."

In addition, institutions want to make sure that the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU about the terms of the exit address issues important for scientific and medical research. "It's a huge priority for us to make sure that the negotiations tackle a few things that we think if we don't get them right would have a really detrimental impact on research going forward," said Emma Greenwood, director of policy at Cancer Research UK.

Following Britain's referendum to leave the EU in the summer of 2016 and the subsequent resignation of David Cameron as prime minister, his successor Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which outlines the mechanism by which a country can leave the EU, on March 29 of this year.

With that, the UK and the EU now have two years to negotiate the terms of the split, until the UK formally leaves the union after March 29, 2019, a deadline that can only be extended if all remaining 27 EU members agree. Under a so-called "hard Brexit," the UK may leave the European single market, potentially replacing it with a free trade agreement, and the free movement of people between Britain and Europe may cease. A "soft Brexit" could possibly maintain the single market, including the free movement of goods, services, capital, and individuals between countries.

In the meantime, the UK government formally started its exit negotiations with the EU in June and introduced a so-called "Great Repeal Bill" to the British parliament in July.

The bill, formally called the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, will repeal all EU laws and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It is designed to take effect the day the UK leaves the EU. In order to guarantee a smooth transition after Brexit, it will initially copy all EU legislation into domestic UK law, where it can then be changed by Parliament over time. The hope is that this will minimize disruption, both for business and for individuals.

The first two rounds of exit negotiations in June and July — the next one is scheduled for the end of August — focused on the rights of the 3 million or so EU citizens living in the UK and the roughly 1 million UK citizens living in Europe, border control in Ireland and Northern Island, and other issues, but no agreement has been reached yet.

One of the main concerns of the scientific research community in the UK, including those in genomics, is the ability to attract top scientific talent from the EU to Britain, and to enable those researchers to establish long-term careers.

Up until now, "the UK was the best place in Europe to come and do science," said Wilson. "We really wish, through the exit negotiations, to preserve that position of excellence, but we realize that there are a number of obstacles to overcome."

Under the current proposal, unveiled by Prime Minister May in June, EU citizens who have been residents of the UK for at least five years will be able to seek "settled status," allowing them to continue to work and claim government benefits, and to bring their spouses and children from abroad. The cut-off date for the five-year requirement has yet to be determined but will be sometime between March 29, 2017 and March 29, 2019. Those who arrived before the cut-off date and have not stayed long enough will also be able to apply for "settled status" once they have lived in the UK for five years. However, those arriving after the cut-off might not be able to become permanent residents and may require work permits, just like non-EU nationals. 

Making it harder for EU researchers to come and get settled in the UK could especially affect international organizations like the Sanger Institute, which currently has a high percentage of European members — more than half of its postdoctoral fellows and more than a third of its PhD students are from the EU.

Following the Brexit referendum a year ago, the Sanger Institute saw a 40 percent drop in applications from EU nationals for PhD positions, from 89 in 2016 to 53 in 2017. "We're hoping that perhaps it was just a knee-jerk reaction" in response to some of the rhetoric surrounding the referendum, which may have made potential applicants feel unwelcome, Wilson said. Brexit was also cited by one unnamed senior bioinformatician who recently left the Sanger Institute as a reason for parting, she added.

Likewise, CRUK has witnessed a few isolated cases of EU job candidates for research positions at UK universities and institutes who did not proceed with their applications because they were worried about Brexit. "We're definitely seeing this and I know that others in the sector are seeing it, as well," Greenwood said.

To counter such developments, the Sanger Institute and other members of the Wellcome Genome Campus, such as the European Bioinformatics Institute, have started to stress that they continue to welcome scientists from all over the world. "We've been working very hard to say: 'The UK is still open for science, the Wellcome Genome Campus is still open for science,'" and "the only criteria are scientific excellence, not nationality," Wilson said. "That's the message we're trying to get across."

Even following Brexit, EU scientists will be able to join UK research institutes, of course — staff members of the Sanger Institute, after all, currently hail from 50 different countries — but they might require visas, which will involve additional paperwork and time. "The beautiful position we were in was, European staff could travel and work here without visas," Wilson said.

Ideally, a new immigration system would allow any talented scientist to come to the UK, regardless of whether they are EU citizens, Greenwood said, "but we do know that it's way easier at the moment for EU nationals to come here." That is reflected in the nationality of scientists currently funded by CRUK: about a third of the PhD students and 39 percent of the research fellows are EU citizens.

"The ability of researchers to continue to come here, but also, equally, the ability of people here to go to other EU countries, that mobility and fluidity, is really key," Greenwood said. "Science is dependent on people moving between different countries and sharing ideas. Perhaps you spend three years training in one country, and then you work in a lab in another country."

Wilson said she personally benefitted from this mobility earlier in her career, when she went to Stockholm, Sweden on an EU-funded Marie Curie research fellowship. "I still have those networks and that experience that I apply to my job today," she said.

So far, the UK government "has said a lot of quite positive things about their desire to make sure that science and scientific talent is maintained, and that we can still be one of the most attractive places for scientists," she said. "It's just how it will play out in the discussions" that is still a big unknown.

Another concern is the ability to keep recruiting skilled technicians from Europe who may not have a PhD but bring important expertise in certain areas, she said, such as technicians in animal facilities or bioinformaticians. Those highly skilled staffers, who might not satisfy the salary requirements for obtaining visas, "are also a vital part of the science ecosystem, and we need a system post-Brexit where these staff could get visas," Wilson said.

A way to address the lack of skilled employees, in particular in informatics and bioinformatics, is to offer more training for locals. "We're now working to develop apprenticeships in informatics and bioinformatics to start growing our own [staff]," she said, who could eventually pursue degrees close to the PhD level. Informatics experts, Wilson said, are in hot demand not only by research institutes but also by pharmaceutical companies, biotechs, the financial industry, game developers, and big data firms, who all compete for the same individuals.

But despite the uncertainties Brexit has created, European scientists keep coming to the UK. One of them is Joris Veltman, who earlier this year left his position at Radboud University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands to become the director of the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Newcastle University.

Veltman said he was very unhappy about the outcome of the Brexit referendum, which took place while he was applying for his new job. However, he liked the position in Newcastle, the support he would receive, and the people and science conducted at the institute. Also, within Europe, "England is clearly leading in genomics, so moving to the UK for a geneticist is not strange, because to be fair, this is where it happens," he said, citing the 100,000 Genomes Project and the Sanger Institute as examples.

In fact, the strongest factions of speakers at the European Society of Human Genetics annual meeting, which Veltman helps organize as scientific program committee chair, come from the UK and the US. "For European genetics, it's important to have the UK be part of it," he said. "We want to keep working together."

Personally, Veltman is not sure yet what becoming a long-term UK resident will look like. He arrived before the cut-off date, so should be able to obtain "settled status" after five years, and his girlfriend, who is from another European country, intends to join him. "Whether we will be treated as second-class citizens or something like that we will have to see," he said. At the university, support has been fantastic so far, and even though almost half of Newcastle voted for leaving the EU, he has yet to meet someone at the university who voted in favor of Brexit.

As the director of the Institute of Genetic Medicine, he said, he is worried about UK scientists losing access to EU grant programs — a lot of EU funding currently goes to Newcastle researchers for rare disease research, for example. "People who have a lot of EU funding within the UK, of course they are worried about both the money, as well as the network," he said.

For his own research, EU funding plays a less important role, though, and there are many funding opportunities from the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, and UK charities available. "I'm not terribly worried about the funding," he said. "What I'm more worried about is things like 'Are students coming to the UK? Are we able to attract people from the EU?'" While the UK will remain attractive to students because of its language, and while he has not had problems recruiting members for his research group so far, this remains an open question.

The Sanger Institute, for its part, has been talking with UK politicians to emphasize to them the importance of EU funding and the ability of UK scientists to participate in European-wide research consortia and networks. "We very much stress that we need to be part of that if at all possible," Wilson said.

One issue CRUK wants to make sure the Brexit negotiations will achieve is an alignment of the UK with the new EU Clinical Trial Regulation, which will go into effect in 2019. The new regulation will harmonize clinical trials throughout the EU, and "we want to make sure that we can continue to align with that as much as possible, so that the UK can still take part in pan-EU clinical trials," Greenwood said. "That's one of the big things for us."

Cancer trials increasingly stratify patients according to their tumors' genetic profile, she said, which means that "your pools of people become ever smaller, so therefore you really have to be able to take a pan-EU or international approach to get the right numbers" of participants.

Most of the international trials that CRUK is involved in are EU trials, though it also has non-EU partners in countries that have brokered specific agreements. However, "it's much easier if it's within the EU because it's under the same piece of legislation," she said.

One fear following the referendum that maybe was unfounded was the exodus of biotech startups from the UK to the EU, at least from the perspective of the Sanger Institute.

A year ago, the institute opened the BioData Innovation Center, which houses startups from Sanger and EBI as well as more established genomics and biodata companies. "We opened that in July and it's pretty much full," Wilson said. The center includes both local firms as well as a company from India and another one from the US, she said, who decided to set up shop here rather than in mainland Europe. "We find that the companies that come here are attracted by the IT infrastructure, the physical environment, and the intellect," she said. "We need to leverage that trend in genomics and bioinformatics, and retain our competitive edge in whatever way we can."

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