So it shouldn't be surprising that many people use big words to show their hysteria. Peter Higgs said that Brexit is a "disaster" for the scientific research. (He hasn't recorded the rumors that the diphoton bump has gone away yet.) Yesterday, the BBC said that such views are common; see also a text in Wired and Physics World. There also exists an organization named "Scientists for Britain" that supported Brexit.
As long as you care about the science itself, I am confident that the hysteria is out of place. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me inform you that the following British physicists were among those who made their famous achievements without any help from the EU:
Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, Ernest Rutherford, Paul Dirac, Peter HiggsI just couldn't resist to include Peter Higgs because he did his famous work in the 1960s. I am generously considering 1973 to be the year when the UK entered the European Union – although it was really the "European Communities" that it became a member of. Note that while Peter Higgs was thinking on the symmetry breaking in the early 1960s, Charles de Gaulle vetoed the U.K. application to join the European Communities in 1963 because he considered Britain to be a "Trojan Horse" of the U.S. ;-)
It would be much more sensible to count 1993 as the (very slow) beginning of the EU's influence on the U.K. science. For that reason, you should also include Stephen Hawking (who did some 1/2 of his key work before the U.K. joined the EC), Michael Green, and many others among the British physicists who did their work without any help from the EU. Even a young physicist such as the great string theory semi-hater Joseph Conlon has dedicated 1/4 of his book to thanking the U.K., not EU, taxpayers. ;-)
The EU redistributes some money and the U.K. is a net payer: the country sends GBP 13 billion to the EU annually while only GBP 4.5 billion of the EU money is spent in the U.K. One may permute and misinterpret various flows and say that the "EU adds some funding to the U.K. science". But even if you do so, the funds seemingly coming from the EU (although lots of money has gotten there previously from the U.K.) still represent a small percentage of the funding. Moreover, a part of the money that the U.K. will save by not paying to the EU coffers will almost certainly be redirected to science again. I see no reason why it shouldn't be the case.
The natural inclination of the British to do and support science is arguably higher than the natural inclination of the average nation in the rest of the EU. One may compare the U.K. with Germany, Europe's economic power house that has a larger population than the U.K., and argue that the U.K. continues to be slightly more important for pure physics research and many other fields than Germany. Germany arguably lost its leadership in science sometime around 1935 (it was the power house of science since some point at the end of the 19th century) and it has never regained it.
Britons are currently getting about 1/5 of various scientific grants and prizes offered by the EU. They're naturally at the top. They may lose the access to most of these prizes. I am sure that they will mention this fact and will simply be compensated by the U.K. government in one way or another. Maybe the U.K. will even create a "virtual box" with a certain budget that will emulate some things that the EU has been doing so far. It's my idea so if you use it, Boris, thank me! ;-) The detailed organization will be different but there's really no reason to expect some dramatic evolution in the overall numbers.
But the most spectacular suggestion that appears at many places is that due to the EU exit, the Britons will have to be expelled from all international organizations and collaborations etc. If you know a Briton, now he or she is a toxic junk that you have to dump, the story says. Now, this is just so terribly stupid that it's easier to laugh than to seriously respond. Even the Americans are politically incorrect bastards who are not members of the EU and they happen to be members of many organizations and teams and collaborations. How can they achieve such a miracle outside the EU? ;-)
This silly story about the elimination of the British scientists from the world may also be encouraged by many people's misunderstanding of the adjective "European" that appears in various scientific and technological organizations. Americans are actually the most likely people to misunderstand the meaning of the word "European" but there may be many Europeans who misunderstand it, too.
The point that they're missing is that just like "America", "Europe" is primarily a continent, not a territory with its own statehood. "America" in the proper sense includes Canada, Mexico, and even Venezuela, while "Europe" includes Serbia, Switzerland, and Norway. This geographic meaning of the words "America" and "Europe" is the primary ones that is imprinted into the meaning of the adjectives "American" and "European".
In particular, "The European Union" means "the most well-known union of nation states that you can find on the European continent", just like "the United States of America" refers to "the most famous union of states on the American continent". But once this de facto confederacy (EU) exists, it doesn't mean that the word "European" has been redefined to mean "dependent on the European Union". In most cases, there is no such dependence at all. The word still refers to the geographic entity, the continent.
Two most famous examples: The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Council of Europe for the Research of Nuclei (CERN). You will forgive me I used my Anglicization of the now doubly outdated French phrase (it's an organization, not a council now, and it primarily probes subnuclear particles and no longer nuclei).
These two phrases, ESA and CERN, contain the word "European". Does it mean that they were created by the glorious leaders such as Jean-Claude Juncker, on an evening when he wasn't drunk, or that they depend on the EU, and they prevent people outside the EU from joining? Not at all. The word "European" refers to the continent and this adjective is meant to be just a rough geographic description where the organizations have their brains, anyway. The European Union – in the sense of the bunch of unelected officials in Brussels – may have the desire to control everything that takes place on the continent which doesn't mean that they actually have (let alone should have) this control.
Look at the ESA member state map. You will see that Switzerland, while outside the EU, is a full member, and so is Norway. On the other hand, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and two Baltic states only have a soft relationship. Other countries such as Turkey, Ukraine, and Canada cooperate.
The British vote to "leave the European Union" is a bit ill-defined because the European Union has many mostly overlapping layers that may be considered a part of the "big project" or not, according to a taste. But I don't think that anybody would think that the Britain has to leave ESA.
It's even more obvious with CERN. It also includes Norway and Switzerland – after all, CERN is partly located in Switzerland and we most frequently say that it's near "Geneva, Switzerland". And to make the case even clearer, Israel has become a full member of CERN. I do think that it should be admitted to other layers of the European Union as well but it's another issue. (The Israeli would surely veto policies that could threaten the Jewish character of the country.)
There's no need for the U.K. to quit ESA and CERN. With smaller institutions and collaborations, it's even more obvious because the smaller collaboration's connection to the European Union is even softer or more non-existent.
The hysteria by many British (and sometimes even American ones, e.g. Lisa Randall) about the impact of Brexit on the British science is remarkably irrational. I actually think that when Czechoslovakia was being dissolved at the end of 1992 – the smaller countries officially came to existence on January 1st, 1993 – all the hysteria was already completely gone. And it was a bigger change of our statehood than the departure from the EU, I think.
The tragic forecasts about disasters and possible wars etc. were fashionable in Czechia up to early 1992 or so (when many Slovaks were more obsessed with remembering the wonderful times when they had an independent softcore clerofascist state during the war). It was an era of the hyphenation war (about the right name to spell Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia – which was officially known as the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic right before the dissolution, after about 5 similar cosmetic changes of the name that often differed in Czechia and Slovakia) and various proposals to turn the country into a confederacy (some support from multicultural Czechs and some softcore Slovaks). But since the elections in mid 1992, it was rather clear that there were good reasons for a full split and we were rather quickly convinced that it would be done just right.
By mid February 1993, Slovak banks were running out of cash because people were moving cash to Czechia, with worries that it could be turned into a weaker, separate Slovak currency. This exodus had to be fought against and the only possible fight was to declare the exodus a classic self-fulfilling prophesy and split the currencies, indeed. Not only there was no hysteria – there weren't even any glitches worth remembering. It just worked.
Czechia and Slovakia differed. Not too much but detectably. Slovakia used to be less developed up to 1918 under the equally agricultural Hungary and its economy remained a bit weaker than Czechia's although the progress in industrialization was spectacularly obvious after the years of Czechoslovakia. But none of the doomsday forecasts for Slovakia materialized.
People were also predicting that after the split, the Slovak currency would drop by a factor of 2 relatively to the Czech counterpart, to reflect the subsidies that had been flowing to Slovakia but were destined to stop. In reality, the Slovak currency only weakened by 20-30 percent and it has never seen anything more extreme. It was more than enough for Slovakia to strengthen its competitive edge. The average growth of Slovakia after the Velvet Divorce was still a bit higher than the average growth in Czechia.
The reasons for similar asymmetries and adjustments are vastly lower in the case of the U.K. because the U.K. is much more obviously self-sufficient than Slovakia was, it already has its own currency that's been floating for centuries, and it's really questionable which part of the divided EU should do better.
If I return to the British science outside the EU: I do think that it's plausible that some detailed rearrangements or changes of priorities will take place. If someone got used to be paid just for being a member of an EU-subsidized team, he may be more likely to be sacked and this is exactly right. It's also plausible that the U.K. is already less obsessed with the climate change hysteria so Brexit could accelerate the decline of the support for research whose only true goal is to constantly revive the scientifically indefensible climate hysteria. But we know very well that even the independent U.K. has lots of climate alarmists, among researchers and politicians and others, so maybe no big change will arrive, anyway.
But when we talk about the true and unquestionable disciplines of science, I don't believe that some visible collapse or "disaster" should be expected. I am confident that most of the consequential Britons are fans of science – after all, the LHC was largely politically created by the British chemist Margaret Thatcher who wasn't the most typical worshiper of the EU elites ;-) – which will be imprinted in the British contributions to science for quite some time.
After the U.S. (45%), the U.K. is the second country producing TRF visitors (7%), ahead of bronze Germany (6%). It's been largely the authentic Britons who have done lots of great things for the civilization – the invention of democracy, capitalism, and calculus-level quantitative science, not to mention various electromagnetic inductions and bra-kets and antimatter and black hole radiation and God particles and hundreds of other things.
The very idea that the EU (in the sense of the political project of an ever closer union on this continent) has been very useful and important for the development of the European science is one big lie, a part of the amazingly arrogant untrue propaganda that the European Union has been trying to spread everywhere on the continent. Sadly, with the help of an echo chamber that is getting paid de facto for worshiping the European Union (instead for doing science or something else) and with the intense indoctrination of children at schools, this propaganda became powerful enough all over the European continent. This propaganda is going to end in the U.K., one of the obviously expected benefits of the Brexit.
It should better end in the rest of Europe, too. There are advantages of international funding, international collaboration, and especially international competition. But the centralization of the funding also has obvious disadvantages. When the pan-European sponsors assign the money incorrectly, it's a bigger mistake, too. More generally, it's important to remember that the actual science is produced by scientists, not by bureaucrats.