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The Brexit deal and the chemical sciences


The UK’s departure from the European Union will impact the chemical sciences in a number of areas, notably mobility for scientists and their families, access to EU research and innovation programmes, chemicals regulation and trade. The Withdrawal Agreement published this week would provide more clarity in many of these areas in the short term – if it is agreed (which at the time of writing is far from certain).

Mobility and the exchange of ideas

Around 20% of academic staff in UK chemistry departments are non-UK EEA nationals, so the confirmation that existing EEA workers in the UK – and UK workers in the EEA – will have their rights protected in the withdrawal agreement will be a relief to many chemists. This would allow broadly the same ease of movement as we currently have, during the Transition Period (from 29 March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU, to 31 December 2020).

Dr Jo Reynolds, Director of Science and Communities at the Royal Society of Chemistry Picture: © Royal Society of Chemistry

Ease of movement between countries for scientists is vital and remains a key reason why the UK is a global science leader, attracting the best talent from around the world. Confirmation of visa-free travel for shorter trips is a welcome start – I recently highlighted the importance of this short-term mobility. As Government develops future immigration arrangements, we – in collaboration with like-minded science bodies – will continue to ask decision-makers for light-touch arrangements for scientists from the EEA and beyond, to enable easy movement and maintain the UK’s attractiveness.

Horizon 2020 – and beyond

UK science benefits from access to collaboration networks and funding through the EU Framework programmes, as well as from access to talent across the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement confirms that the UK would still be able to participate in the current programme, Horizon 2020. We hear the concerns of our community that in a no deal scenario, UK researchers could lose access to European Research Council and other funding, despite the Government’s Underwrite Guarantee.

After 2020, the UK would have the option to associate to the next Framework programme, Horizon Europe, though this seems highly unlikely if there is no deal. Although this would mean less influence than the UK enjoys now, it is clear there are significant benefits from UK participation in these programmes and it is our view that the UK should associate to an excellence-focused Horizon Europe. Our recently published member case studies show how EU and international collaborations bring about investment, new businesses, new drugs and knowledge enabling us to tackle global issues such as poor air quality. We will continue to make the case to UK decision-makers for association to EU programmes (often with like-minded UK science associations) and to EU decision-makers for a continued focus on excellence, working with EuChemS.

Chemicals regulation and trade

The Royal Society of Chemistry believes it is vital that chemicals regulation achieves a balance between nurturing innovation, protecting the environment and human health, and enabling the UK to trade internationally. The draft withdrawal agreement would mean continued EU–UK alignment on chemicals regulation – at least for the transition period – to enable continued frictionless trade of chemicals and goods. All REACH chemicals registration dossiers would remain valid during the transition period, although the UK would lose influence in decision-making.

Agreement on customs would come as a relief to many chemistry-dependent businesses, including those who transport speciality chemicals across borders as part of time-critical transport or supply chains. However, businesses still have actions to take regarding the administration of REACH dossiers and processes relevant to them, which will change after 29 March 2019. The Health & Safety Executive websites are the authoritative source of government information.

We recently highlighted in our letters to the House of Lords EU Exit Energy and Environment committee the importance of good scientific advice informing chemicals regulation that applies in the UK. We continue to campaign for UK association to the European Chemicals Agency, including participation in the scientific and technical working groups. However, the Withdrawal Agreement does not give us this certainty and represents a loss of influence in matters of chemicals regulation.

As I stated in July and October, a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be a bad deal for the chemical sciences. The Withdrawal Agreement is less concerning than no deal. If ratified, it would remove many uncertainties, though it would mean a loss to the UK of the influence EU member states have on key scientific matters. In the longer-term, agreement on the future UK–EU relationship, and the legislative changes planned on immigration and the environment will impact chemistry and our community. We will continue to campaign on these, working with others, to put the case for chemistry and science in these discussions.


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