Brain drain fears after Brexit vote

Leave vote triggers warnings of recruitment problems and of UK academics seeking better opportunities elsewhere

June 24, 2016
Man burning European Union (EU) flag
Source: Getty
Unwelcoming: UK and international scholars alike may feel ‘alienated’

Observers have predicted a brain drain of researchers from the UK in the aftermath of the vote to leave the European Union as rival countries snap up academic talent.

Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the consultancy Digital Science, said that the Leave vote was a “real concern” and would strengthen the appeal of universities in places such as Singapore and South Korea.

It will put off “people here who feel alienated by the attitude to internationalism in their own country”, he said.

In addition, scientists from abroad would be deterred from coming to the UK by “anti-foreigner” sentiment.

Daniel Hook, managing director, said: “This puts Germany in an amazing position to capitalise on the UK’s exit.”

He said that universities should be particularly concerned about the Brexit vote’s impact on the decisions of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, rather than more senior academics settled in a particular place.

Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, said that his EU colleagues were feeling “increasingly unwelcome”, and one had said that he would leave the UK in the event of a Brexit vote.

“There are plenty of good places to go,” he said, mentioning South Korea and other European countries.

The vote would also have “a clear and immediate impact on recruiting people from abroad” and there would be a “rapid drop-off” in hiring academics from overseas.

He added that he had little confidence that any new government would put in place a “sophisticated immigration policy” that would allow continued recruitment.

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that it was “technically possible” for a new government to craft an “outward-looking migration policy” post-Brexit.

However, “the big challenge is that globally the perception is that the UK has chosen…an anti-immigration” stance, she added.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, some researchers mulled leaving the UK after the vote.

David Colquhoun, a pharmacology professor at University College London, said: “seriously thinking about leaving the sinking ship of Little England. Mortified.”

Mike Savage, head of the sociology department at the London School of Economics, said: “Got a job offer from a continental European university just now. That was quick!”

David Price, vice-provost (research) at UCL, said that the vote was “likely to be a disaster for the long-term future for UK research and HE sector”.

The reaction from Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, was: “one way flight to Zurich please”.

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Print headline: Brain drain fears after referendum

Reader's comments (2)

Important/most worrying thing is that (for science at least) those at postdoc level are used to being very mobile. Myself and my partner have lived in Germany, the Netherlands, USA, Canada, France and the UK between us over the last 10 years as postgrads and then postdocs. So for folk on short term contracts or those dealing with fellowship schemes that encourage mobility, it's not a big deal to just stop considering the UK as an option.
Must say the article seems a bit confused; it talks about "anti-foreigner" feeling being the driver of a potential brain-drain, yet if there is anti-foreign feeling, that is a contributor to the "leave" vote, not the result of it. One academic is quoted as blaming the "sinking ship of Little England" which implies a completely different set of issues and reasons. Potential destinations quoted include Singapore, which has possibly as much anti-immigrant feeling, if not more, and has fairly recently tightened the rules on foreign "talent" to make it harder to bring families into Singapore. In the case of South Korea, most immigrants are not granted citizenship or permanent residence. That might be fine for short-term contracts but is unlikely to attract those seeking a more permanent home. Plus, if the scare-mongerers are to be believed, UK nationals living in the EU may find their welcome short-lived. Seems like there's a hidden agenda here somewhere but it's easier to blame things on immigration issues (frank discussion of which is becoming almost taboo in our society, for fear of being seen as "racist"). I suspect a lot of the comment on social media from academics saying they'll leave is a knee-jerk reaction in the face of inevitable uncertainty. I hope that those threatening to leave fully consider all the benefits and disadvantages a move would bring not only for them, but for their families, their institutions, and of course the UK.

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