Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

International scientific collaboration in an ever-changing world

It is a widely held perception that the United States and United Kingdom, leading nations in the field of science, synergistically combine scientific excellence with ready entry into international networks of scientific collaboration. However, both nations experienced important changes in 2016: the United Kingdom voted to separate from the European Union and the United States elected a controversial president. In this context, an important question about scientific mobility and international collaboration arises: how do fundamental changes in the essence of the two most important scientific players affect international science?


UK-based researchers collaborate with partners all over the world. In the United Kingdom, 28% of academics are from other countries, with 16% from other EU countries. In a statement on international collaboration post-EU referendum, the Research Councils of the United Kingdom affirmed that they are “working with their research communities and with Government to ensure that the UK is well placed to maintain its place as a leading research nation”. It is unlikely that Brexit will significantly impact non-EU collaborations. As for the UK-EU collaborations, Brexit has implications on two main fronts, as elucidated by Eleanor Beal, senior policy advisor of the Royal Society. First, she points out that any changes to immigration policies will determine who can visit or work in the United Kingdom as well as how easily UK researchers can travel to the rest of the EU. Second, the mechanisms by which the United Kingdom engages with EU research programmes will determine whether scientists based there can access the support for collaboration and mobility that the EU provides. Immigration has in fact emerged as a central issue in the wider debate about what Brexit will look like in practice. For instance, it will clearly be more difficult for principal investigators to hire staff members from other EU countries without having to sponsor their visas. In this scenario, it is unclear to what extent Brexit will impact the UK profile of international collaboration, but it seems unquestionable that some negative impact will be observed.

Science Lab
Lab students at Saint Petersberg State Polytechnic University by A.I. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

United States presidential election

Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States can have a broader impact on international mobility and scientific collaborations. In a recent interview to Scientific American, Trump declared that if the United States “allow individuals in this country legally to get their educations, we should let them stay if they want to contribute to our economy. It makes no sense to kick them out of the country right after they achieve such extraordinary goals”. However, Trump’s constant demonstration of xenophobia will likely give foreign scientists pause for thought before they consider a move to the United States, as written by Mark Peplow for Chemistry World. It is important to remind us all that the scientific work force in the United States is greatly dependent on the recruitment of international personnel and, as stated by Cassidy Sugimoto, US Nobel prizes and other great discoveries made in the United States are largely attributed to scientists both born and educated in other nations. If US policies inhibit the country’s connectivity at the global level, the scientific strength of the United States will likely decline.

Underdeveloped nations

What about the impact of restricting international mobility on developing and underdeveloped nations? Using the Brazilian scientific system as an example, it is predictable that the negative impact could be substantial. Recently, Brazil launched a huge program to send scientists to be trained abroad. The impact of this initiative on Brazilian science still has not been determined, but the current local perception is that international experiences and/or collaborations are indispensable for young scientists to succeed even in job applications within the Brazilian academic system. Brexit will likely have little impact on the collaborative actions between Brazilian and British scientists, but restrictive immigration policies could profoundly affect training of Brazilian researchers in the United States and, consequently, limit the establishment of intercontinental collaborations. The Brazilian case is an example that can be extrapolated to other countries with a long history of sending scientists to be trained abroad, including India and China.

In an integrated and ever-changing world, policies of leading nations directly affect multiple countries in many aspects. However, it is important that the scientific community stands together to constantly make sure that country boundary lines cannot limit science.

Featured image credit: Handshake by viganhajdari. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. scar

    Interesting view. I think it’s also worth considering the impact on people’s personal preferences. For example, researchers may not want to travel to the US and work there on projects, especially if they’re projects that would involve working closely with government departments, now that Trump is president-elect. Likewise, the general wave of more open racism that has swept through the UK following the Brexit vote might make researchers less likely to want to go there even if given the chance.

Comments are closed.