On the 60th anniversary of signing the treaty in Rome that formed the European Union, we were invited to take part in the Cambridge Science Festival to talk about the ‘implications of BREXIT on diversity in science’. This was a largely theoretical discussion; no one knows for sure the extent to which the United Kingdom will actually dissociate itself from the EU after the official deadline in April 2019. But when researchers are already feeling the pinch of that uncertainty, it is essential we consider how leaving the EU will affect the people who work in our laboratories and how well they represent the demographics of our society at large.

Why is diversity an issue?

There is a moral imperative for science to represent the diverse interests of society, and when science becomes exclusive to one group over another we lose out on the intelligence and creativity of the people it rejects. It has already been well-established that greater diversity improves outcomes in research, education and innovation, McKinsey reported that companies with a diverse workforce outperform non-diverse ones by 15% (gender) and 35% (ethnicity).[1] Yet science still has a diversity problem to overcome: in the UK women make up only 22% of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce,[2] and we have the lowest percentage of women engineers in Europe (only 9%).[3] This isn’t just a gender issue, non-white men are 28% less likely than white men to work in STEM, students with disabilities are 57% less likely to progress to postgraduate studies than those without disabilities, while less than half of LGBT+ scientists are out to most of their colleagues. These inequalities begin in school: the tired assumption that science isn’t for you unless you fit the stereotype of a straight, white man (probably with glasses). The imbalance becomes more apparent in more senior positions as more and more ‘underrepresented’ groups drop out. It is so systemic that we have even come up with the phrase “The Leaky pipeline”.

Encouraging diversity is more than just legislating for equal treatment, but requires an ongoing effort to challenge discriminatory practices where they occur. The EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme has taken a step forwards in this regard by including conditions for “strategies to balance gender regulation” to their funding, but lacks clear guidelines on how to translate this into actions that protect women.[4] However, UK-based Horizon 2020 funded PhDs for European students include clauses, which state that if they were to become pregnant during their studies and take maternity leave, the strict time limit on that funding would mean they would fail the PhD. Issues like this can seem minor, but they create a working environment that is inherently less welcoming to certain groups. When students feel unwelcome in the lecture theatre or the lab, they are discouraged from pursuing a career in science. For some people this leads to actively changing or hiding their identities: a recent study showed that even in this more tolerant day and age, less than half of LGBT+ scientists are out to most of their colleagues because they are afraid of discrimination. The pressure to fit in can lead to significant stress and mental health problems, those LGBT+ scientists who felt safe enough to come out at work also reported being happier and more productive. While the situation is gradually improving, thanks to dedicated efforts to increase uptake of science among under-represented school students and improving support for minorities in academia, the progress that has been made is incredibly fragile and any setback could impact the retention of women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people in science for years to come.

Funding implications

So how does the EU factor into this? There have already been several reports into the economic impact of Brexit on science, mostly in terms of investment. As a country we do exceptionally well out of EU research funding, UK-based researchers currently receive over £1 billion per year from programmes like the European Research Council, Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and the Horizon 2020 scheme.[5] Sadly, there has not been any indication whether the UK Government intends to pursue an association agreement to maintain our involvement in these programmes after Brexit. This uncertainty has left thousands of scientists unsure about their future in the UK, and stands to massively reshape the demographics of our labs and lecture theatres.

Immigration implications

Here in the UK we are proud of our excellent reputation for academic research, we rank first in the world for field-weighted citation impact, but much of our success comes from British science being incredibly international and mobile. Scientists are at their best when we can freely travel to attend conferences, participate in collaborations, and work in labs across the globe. The UK has been lucky to attract some of the most talented scientists in the world; 28% of the UK scientific workforce is not British, and more than half of those are European.[6] This is already a serious concern to universities, where European students make up 19% of postgraduate physics degrees.[7] Uncertainty over whether we will remain part of the Erasmus scheme, which funds undergraduate students who spend a year in a partner European institution, has led to a massive drop in applications to UK universities.[8] Erasmus has been running for 25 years and has kick-started hundreds of thousands of research careers, helping students build professional experience and connections with other academics in different countries. And when our world-leading universities become less attractive to European applicants, they go elsewhere: Scotland have already taken the bold move of announcing free tuition to all EU students, and many EU institutions stand to benefit from reduced competition from the UK.

The UK stands to lose a lot of excellent researchers if mobility is restricted by harsher immigration rules and a perceived antipathy towards foreigners here in the UK. We are already seeing the impact of Britain’s altered reputation post-Brexit; fears over job security and increased xenophobia are prompting more European academics to leave. If the Government commits to a “hard Brexit” to control immigration, we can only expect greater restrictions on European researchers coming to the UK, to our mutual detriment.

The loss of any European researchers or students will have a profoundly negative impact on the UK’s scientific gender balance. In Portugal, almost 40% of undergraduate physicists are women, an achievement that is reportedly due to concerted policy making: Portugal have strict rules on gender discrimination and women are well-represented in textbooks, teaching students from an early age that science is a place for women as well as men. These impressive statistics do not only make us look ridiculous by comparison, but means the presence of many European scientists in Britain actually softens our domestic gender imbalance: while women make up 9% of the UK’s engineering workforce, the number of British women doing engineering apprenticeships is even lower (7%), and in some sectors it is as low as 3%.[9] There are other implications as well: a recent Elsevier Study found that whilst women researchers collaborate more often than men, our collaborator networks are more often domestic.[10],[11],[12] A loss of the academic diversity brought by talented European staff in UK universities will adversely affect the publication output of British women more than British men.

It is worth noting that the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee have already released a document of post-Brexit priorities in science, and they do include protections for EU/EEA researchers currently working in the UK. [13] If we want to continue attracting the best the world has to offer, we must strive to provide certainty and stability for the scientists who are already here while ensuring that there are as few immigration barriers as possible for those highly-skilled researchers who wish to come here in future.

Legal implications

The EU is more than just a body for funding research and enabling migration, but actively advocates for greater equality in the UK. The EU Parliament’s committee on women’s rights are a body that process legislation on equality and investigate issues that impact women, while other European projects focus on more specific issues, like the Daphne Jackson foundation, which deals with maternity leave, and the Fundamental Rights Agency, who monitor trends in xenophobia and highlight best practices to prevent it.[14],[15] These organisations have supported the EU in shaping the debate about equality in this country, creating laws to enforce equal pay, maternity leave and discrimination. When we leave the EU, we will no longer be a beneficiary of their work, and those laws will have to be converted into UK legislation or they will cease to apply. But under the current plan for that conversion, the Government intends to use the so-called ‘Henry VIII clause’, giving them the power to amend those laws as they see fit, without parliamentary oversight. Although it is unlikely they will gut anti-discrimination laws this way, the Conservative Party’s own manifesto states their intention to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses in order to encourage investment and economic growth after Brexit. We have already seen commentators in the press agitating for removal of regulations such as the Working Time Directive, which protects workers’ rights to take time off. Without the guarantee of those protections, and when companies have greater freedom to hire and fire employees with impunity, discrimination becomes harder to challenge in the workplace.

What can be done?

When Britain no longer has the EU looking over its shoulder, who will ensure that the Government actively supports equality and upholds laws protecting us from discrimination? At this point one of our fellow panellists at the Cambridge Science Festival produced a compelling argument about the historical importance of collective bargaining. While the public’s opinion of British trade unions has suffered over the past few decades, they continue to actively negotiate deals and improve the prospects of women and other minorities.[16] And despite what people might think about their efficacy in that regard, minority group employees tend to have better working conditions in industries where many employees are trade union members. Perhaps it’s time for more scientists to join a union and work together to better protect ourselves and each other from the uncertain future of post-Brexit Britain.[17]

At a national level, the UK now has several of its own projects that advocate for equality and diversity, such as the Athena SWAN initiative and the UK Government’s recently established Women and Equalities Committee. But it is up to us whether these organisations become an essential part of our political culture. Despite millions of pounds of investment into improving gender balance in science and engineering, there has been disappointingly little progress over the past twenty years. Part of the blame falls squarely on the fact there has been very little evidence-based activity in this area. It’s not all terrible though, the more sensible projects (Improving Gender Balance from the Institute of Physics and ASPIRES from University College London) have started to show greater traction. But if we are going to build on that momentum, we are going to have to start conducting our own surveys, making audits and assessing how EU funding for equality will need to be matched at both local and national levels.[18] This will mean more work; we will no longer be able to outsource our diversity discussion to Brussels but instead take responsibility for our own societal values. We must investigate how our own funding structures and government policies are used to support different ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic classes, disabilities, religions and ages.

Final Thoughts

Since the official invocation of Article 50 last month, it seems that a UK outside the EU is a certainty. While the motto of the EU is ‘United in Diversity’, it is up to us to decide whether that our decision to leave means that the UK must reject this idea and turn away from the rest of the world, with all the dangers that poses to our position as a beacon of scientific excellence. If we can make sure that the concerns of our learned societies are heard, and the government supports policies to protect diversity in both science and society in general, the UK will inevitably remain a fantastic place to do research.[19] But we must also ensure that no one is left behind during this tumultuous change. In the face of rising xenophobia and isolationism, we should celebrate and value the diversity that makes us who we are today.

Jess is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London, creating circularly polarised organic light emitting diodes. Jess won the Institute of Physics (IOP) Early Career Communicator Prize (2015), “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!” (2015) and the IOP Jocelyn Bell Burnell Award (2016). Throughout her career in research she has been involved in projects to support gender inclusion in science. At Imperial, she established the Imperial College London Women in Physics group, and nationally sits on the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) young women’s board. Amongst other projects, Jess works closely with the Institute for Research in Schools and IOP to try and support teachers and students across the country.

Joby Razzell Hollis is a multi-disciplinary scientist with a degree in chemistry from Sussex University and a PhD in physics from Imperial College London, where he studied the morphology of organic solar cells. He is frank about his sexuality and how it intersects with his career, and uses that experience to advocate for greater diversity and inclusivity in science, particularly for LGBT people.


[1] http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters

[2] https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/2016/11/women-in-the-stem-workforce-2016

[3] http://www.theiet.org/factfiles/education/skills2016-page.cfm

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/promoting-gender-equality-research-and-innovation

[5] https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/uk-research-and-european-union/role-of-EU-in-funding-UK-research/how-much-funding-does-uk-get-in-comparison-with-other-countries/

[6] https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/uk-research-and-european-union/role-of-eu-researcher-collaboration-and-mobility/snapshot-of-the-UK-research-workforce/

[7] The impact of EU membership on UK physics, IOP Briefing, April 2016

[8] http://www.bbcactive.com/BBCActiveIdeasandResources/ImpactofBrexitonFurtherEducation.aspx

[9] http://www.youngwomenstrust.org/apprenticeshipcampaign

[10] Gender in the Global Research Landscape, Elsevier, 2017

[11] Uhly, K.M., Visser, L.M., Zippel, K.S. “Gendered patterns in international research collaborations in academia.” Stud High Educ. September 2015:1-23. doi:10.1080/0


[12] Abramo, G., D’Angelo, C.A., Murgia, G. “Gender differences in research collaboration.” J Informetr. 2013;7(4):811-822. doi:10.1016/j.joi.2013.07.002.

[13] Science Priorities for Brexit, scienceinparliament.org.uk 2017

[14] http://www.daphnejackson.org

[15] http://fra.europa.eu/en/theme/racism-related-intolerances

[16] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/04/it-time-womens-trade-union

[17] https://www.prospect.org.uk

[18] http://www.womensequality.org.uk

[19] “What should be the government’s priorities for exit negotiations and policy development to maximise the contribution of British universities to a successful and global UK?” Universities UK, 2016