Maintaining collaborations after Brexit

The UK Government is seeking an “ambitious agreement” for future science collaboration with the European Union. So, what’s on the agenda and how can you help?

Last week, the UK Government shared its vision for post-Brexit collaboration on science and innovation with the European Union.[1] This is one of the latest in a series of papers, which have been released to shore up the UK’s position as it negotiates its exit from, and future relationship with, the EU. Clearly, the decisions made in this area will have a significant impact on applied microbiologists across Europe. How then, can we make the case for continuing collaboration?

Cautious optimism

The position paper contains some encouraging signs for the scientific community, which prompted some cautiously optimistic responses.[2],[3] Within it, the Government acknowledges the importance of “continued collaboration amongst the top scientists across Europe and the UK” when tackling serious issues such as infectious diseases in plants, animals and people. Furthermore, there is a commitment that the UK will continue its involvement with institutions that are not intrinsically tied to the EU, such as the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) – a significant platform for data sharing amongst researchers.

Good signs so far then, it would appear. But what’s missing? The aforementioned responses from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and the Royal Society both highlight that assurances are needed on the future of the UK’s immigration system. The sooner this happens the better, especially in light of a recently leaked Home Office document which casts free flow of researchers and technicians into doubt.[4] With immigration being possibly the single most contentious issue in the Brexit debate, a resolution will not appear overnight.


Free flow of research and technical talent is crucial for a healthy scientific environment.

Making the case for microbiology

In its vision for future UK-EU collaboration, the UK Government highlights some high profile examples of research & development, most notably in space research, civil nuclear programmes and defence. Healthcare is also big on the agenda, with specific references being made to the UK’s contribution to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Reference Networks (which focus on rare diseases). These examples are cited as key areas in which the UK Government will seek continued collaboration.

For applied microbiologists, there are many other examples where cooperation should continue for the benefit of the wider public. Looking at EU agencies other than the EMA is a good start. For instance, the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) provide crucial support for the high standards of public health and food safety which the UK currently enjoys. In turn, microbiologists in the UK contribute significant expertise to these agencies, either through direct employment or presence on expert advisory panels. Care must be taken to ensure that the flow of information and expertise to and from these agencies continues after Brexit.

The scientific community in the UK voted overwhelmingly to remain, and since the vote I have yet to meet a single microbiologist who doesn’t have serious concerns about the likely impact of the UK leaving the EU. 

Microbiology is a global discipline and microbiology matters affect us all. Indeed, we have found consensus and synergies with European partners to tackle challenges such food safety and antimicrobial resistance, and UK microbiologists have played an integral role in a number of key EU organisations. Within days of the vote to leave, SfAM joined with other life science learned societies in a meeting where we agreed priorities for our community that we continue to press the Government on during the negotiation phase. 

Dr. Clare Taylor, SfAM General Secretary and Policy Subcommittee Chair

In May we asked our members to tell us the priority issues facing them, as the UK moves closer towards its exit from the EU.[5] Two main topics stood out:

  • 65% of respondents viewed collaboration and rapid response to pan-European issues, such as responding to disease outbreaks, as a high priority.
  • Similarly, being able to access and maintain facilities inside or outside of the UK was deemed a high priority, supported by 72% of responses.

Such facilities include culture collections, reference laboratories and various data networks and repositories – all integral to the research and application of microbiology.

It is clear that whilst the UK Government wishes to convince the EU of the value of UK science and innovation, it is our job to convince the UK Government of the many areas in which applied microbiologists have a collaborative influence. Therefore, we are calling for your help! For SfAM to have a meaningful voice, we rely on the input and experience of our dedicated membership. We are looking for key examples of where applied microbiologists have collaborated across borders, and the specific institutions that enable such cooperation. If you would like to take part in making the case for microbiology, then please get in touch!


Chris Brown, SfAM Policy Officer



[2] CaSE’s response:

[3] Royal Society’s response:

[4] Original article:; CaSE’s response:

[5] Membership survey conducted between 2 May and 22 May 2017; 205 responses received in total.

Categories: Brexit, Feature Articles, Policy

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