How Brexit may impact Arctic research

Some scientists fear that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union may lead to the erosion of British expertise and international collaboration in the Arctic. Others see opportunities opening up, including more Canada-UK partnerships. Véronique Morin reports for Arctic Deeply

By: /
August 26, 2016
Arctic research
Dinghies and research vessels are pictured in the small harbour near Ny-Alesund on Spitsbergen, Norway October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Anna Filipova

When sea ice physicist Peter Wadhams left Canada in 1974 to return to his native Britain and join Cambridge University, the United Kingdom had only recently joined the European Community.

“It suddenly became attractive and worthwhile to pursue Arctic research in my own country,” he said. But after a slim majority of British voters opted in favour of Britain’s exit from the EU (known as Brexit) in June’s referendum, Wadhams now fears the collapse of the UK’s Arctic research programs – and is giving serious thought to moving his research to Italy.

“Forty-two years of research now destroyed in one day,” said Wadhams, whose Polar Ocean Physics Group, internationally recognized for its sophisticated modelling of sea ice, is primarily funded by the EU.

Many echo his fears. Brexit was on every mind at the EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester in July, possibly the last time Europe’s largest general scientific conference will be held on British soil. The anxiety was particularly acute among Arctic researchers because they depend more heavily on European money and collaboration.

The EU, through the European Research Council (ERC), spread about 200 million euros (US$223 million) across nearly 50 Arctic-related projects from 2007–2015. Almost half of the funding went to UK universities. Under the E.U.’s latest funding scheme, Horizon 2020, the ERC has already committed 40 million euros for 2016–2017, with a high level of involvement from UK universities. The next granting round takes place in November and many fear it is highly unlikely that British-based groups will be able to participate, unless they are “invited” to do so.

On top of that, the famed British Antarctic Survey (BAS) runs a research station at Ny-Ålesund on the high Arctic island of Spitsbergen, Norway, along with more than a dozen programs at the North Pole. These programs, in fields ranging from climatology to ice physics and biochemistry to marine conservation, receive 2 million euros (US$2.23 million) from the EU annually.

“My UK colleagues are very concerned right now,” said David Barber, Canada research chair of Arctic-System Science at the University of Manitoba. “And so it is for anyone involved in research with British scientists in the North.”

Panelists at sessions about research collaboration in the Arctic tried to reassure UK scientists that their expertise and experience in the polar regions were still appreciated. “Brexit would not affect in any way eventual collaborations between NordForsk and British funding agencies and researchers,” said Marja Makarow, who chairs NordForsk, the organization that provides funding for Nordic research cooperation and infrastructure.

Wadhams made an effort to put an upbeat spin on the situation. “One positive step is that we might be freer to [conduct] collaborative work with Canadians. It would be nice if we could,” he said. While Canada can take part in some European projects, their researchers must be invited into EU consortia to receive grants, he added.

Some have pointed to Norway as a solution to the UK’s funding woes. Norway pays a fee to be part of the EU research program, even though it is not part of the EU. But Wadhams isn’t optimistic. “Norway can only take part in these programs so long as they accept the free movement of people. Half of Britain voted to keep foreigners out,” he said. “If we insist on controlling our borders, then we won’t be part of any EU-funded research consortium – even as paying guests.” Pro-Brexit voters say uncontrolled immigration, not foreign workers, is the issue.

Alexandre Anesio, a biochemist and director of the Glaciology Centre at the University of Bristol, who recently published a paper explaining how microbes survive extreme cold temperatures, is also mulling over his options. His program isn’t under immediate threat, but Anesio sees potential danger two to four years ahead. His centre trains PhD microbiologists from across Europe and more than 60 percent of his funding stems from the EU.

Few fields of research require a more collaborative approach than those focused on the Arctic. The conditions are so challenging and the region so difficult to access that scientific study there requires joint efforts.

With its decision to leave the EU and the funding impact that is likely to have on Arctic researchers, Britain may well have to step back from its starring role in these joint efforts, particularly if leading scientists move their operations to the continent.

The withdrawal by the UK might open up new research partnerships for Canada with European partners, said David Scott, president of Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR). “Brexit is going to complicate things for the UK as they are moving forward, and could have unforeseen consequences,” he said. “But I am neutral as to whether it may affect research in the Arctic. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Meanwhile, ongoing partnerships (negotiated outside of POLAR) might suffer. “Conducting research in the Arctic is dangerous and expensive, and requires long-term planning and strategy,” said Barber. “Brexit makes the future of ongoing research very uncertain.”

This piece was first published with Arctic Deeply