Foundations and Brexit: A view from… science funding

In this series, we are taking a closer look at what Brexit means for foundations. We will include perspectives from across the UK and from funders with a number of specialisms and approaches. Although the situation changes daily and the implications are still uncertain, this series will explore some of the thoughts and reactions from within the sector. The third article in our series comes from Stuart Pritchard, EU Affairs Manager at Wellcome Trust.

A view from… science funding

Wellcome is part of a very strong scientific community in the UK, funding particularly but not exclusively in the life sciences. There are some broad concerns emerging as a result of Brexit that affect the wider scientific community, including social sciences and humanities.

The first is around people – those already here and those that might want to come in the future, both short and long-term. We need a migration system that is fit for purpose – a system that enables the brightest talent to work in the UK, including a mix of researchers, scientists and technical staff. It is not a question of the UK allowing people to come – we are fighting to attract the best in a global competition.

As a funder and an employer, we would like to see as much certainty as the government can provide to reassure people, particularly EU nationals currently resident in the UK. For example, we fund the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, where around 20% of staff are non-UK EU nationals.

The funding point is more nuanced. It is not necessarily about the sum of money from the EU that is key, but what that funding enables. Collaboration is enhanced through EU funding, allowing scientists to work more effectively. People come to the UK because the best scientists are here across many fields, particularly in the life sciences; we do punch above our weight in terms of the population and funding. There are also some things that the EU funds that national governments don’t, such as certain infrastructure investments. What we need to look at over the next few months is what EU funding allows, and what we might lose, and what the UK should do to address that.

The European Commission has said that applicants for EU funding should continue to include UK partner organisations in their bids as we are still a full member of the EU. But there are some reports of a UK partner no longer being asked to take the lead in an application, or even not take part at all. It is very difficult to see how extensive that might be but it does add to the uncertainty. What is more worrying is that any proposals yet to be discussed might decide not to involve a UK partner at all – we don’t know what that deadening effect might be. I think the government is aware of that challenge.

Some people do feel that the regulation and legislation that comes from the EU is a constraint that can be rolled back when we leave. I think we need to be very careful, and question the case to change regulations. For example, Wellcome is very interested in clinical trials. These are often conducted across countries, and it is simpler to have one set of rules – if we start changing ours, the UK environment might become less competitive. It is easy to point at the EU and criticise it for creating all this bureaucracy and regulation, but let’s be honest – we are not immune from creating our own bureaucracy, no government is. Of course there are things the EU has done that could have been simpler, but that is the same for any legislation.

What we are trying to do at Wellcome is to be balanced and constructive, to respect the result, and to try to work with other people – including those in government who have to implement the result – to make sure it happens in as good a way as possible.

A lot of areas are hard to predict – what position the government is going to take on border control, the customs union, or access to the single market. But we are looking at what evidence we might need to gather to inform government negotiations, provide guidance and insight, and constructive criticism if necessary, working with other organisations in the science community and the wider voluntary sector. There is a value in trying to provide a unified voice where possible. Government might not have the resources to process all the representations, so we know it will be an iterative challenge, where we are not yet sure of the rules or the timescales.

So far there has not been any detectable impact on Wellcome’s funding activity. We want a thriving science and research community to invest in, and so maintain an ongoing dialogue to understand what the issues are. One area that is emerging is currency fluctuations, where some grantees have seen an impact on their costs. We do also hear the occasional mention of a person being reluctant to take a post, but it is very anecdotal so far. We can only keep in touch with our grantees, understand their issues, and prepare in case we need to look at the situation more closely.


Stuart Pritchard
EU Affairs Manager
ellcome Trust


Other articles in this series:

A view from… Scotland 
A view from... arts & culture funding 
A view from... Northern Ireland 
A view from... Wales  
A view from... medical research 
A view from... environmental funding 
A view from... Europe 

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities