Down and out

Similar to most scientists (and almost everybody I know) I’m deeply concerned by the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. It’s difficult to see the outcome as anything but a huge step backward, damaging to the country’s future and to science. I expect the next few months will be the equivalent of watching a slow-motion car crash, the extent of the damage gradually being revealed.

Academics and life scientists in particular were almost unanimous in their support for Remain. I saw several polls of scientists and university staff that put support forEUUN0001 remaining in the EU at ~90% (what the other 10% were thinking I have no idea). There are obvious, self-serving reasons why most UK scientists are in favour of the EU. The Royal Society published figures showing that while the UK contributed €5.4bn to the EU science budget between 2007-2013, researchers in the UK had been awarded grants and funding of €8.8bn in the same period. Many of us know the UK is disproportionately successful at winning EU funding. We are skeptical whether the ~£3bn or more of EU funding that will be lost from the UK over the next 5 years will be replaced by our national government. Moreover, UK scientists often take leadership roles in multinational European collaborations. Leaving the EU will jeopardise the authority and influence that these roles offer and result in UK science being increasingly sidelined. I’ve already heard stories of UK scientists being asked to step down from applications for European funding because of the uncertain status of the UK over the next few years.

However I think there is a much deeper and more fundamental reason why most scientists are pro-Remain. In addition to the funding, the importance of freedom of movement and the free exchange of ideas is at the heart of science. Seeing the bureaucracy and hassle that some non-EU members of my lab have to go through to travel to another European country would have been enough of an incentive alone for me to vote for the EU. But for most researchers the freedom of movement is not simple expediency or minimising delays in airports. Science is fundamentally an international endeavour that transcends national boundaries. The sharing of ideas, people and material is an essential part of research. It enhances both senders and recipients. Anything that prevents or even just discourages exchanges is detrimental to science and the country. The perception that the UK is now less welcoming, less open, less enlightened makes me feel bleak.

This idea is not new but has been the case for centuries. In the run up to the referendum vote I was reading Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt The book is an engaging description of the life and influence of the Nineteenth century polymath. Wulf discusses how he made fundamental contributions to our understanding of our natural and physical environment, inspiring later generations including Charles Darwin and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Many aspects of Humboldt’s career would be familiar to scientists working in Europe today. Wulf describes that, despite living through the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, he was closely connected with other scientists across Europe. Born near Berlin, he spent a considerable time living and working in Paris and had extended stays in several other cities, including London; a CV is similar to many of today’s researchers. He also corresponded extensively with other scientists, answering up to 5000 letters a year – a century and a half before email. It was these interactions and collaborations that gave Humboldt’s major work ‘Kosmos’ its breadth and reach and his global outlook was also responsible for Humboldt’s influence on future generations.

Although no one is likely to have the impact or importance of Humboldt again, one of the great pleasures of being a European researcher today is how the diversity of people in our labs and in our fields enrich both our intellectual and cultural life. It is essential that UK remains an open and attractive destination for scientists from Europe and the rest of the world. I strongly believe that the EU was important for this and I worry about the consequences now. It’s crucial that international researchers are allowed to visit and work in the UK and that we still have access to EU funding and European collaborations. I’m sure the Crick, like all international research institutes, will do its best to remain open and welcoming to scientists wherever they come from. But a chilling consequence of the referendum is the message of disdain and contempt it sends to the rest of the world. Countering this is as important as whatever new criteria for visas and funding eligibility are put in place. One of the benefits of our move to the Crick is that it’s located right across the road from the Eurostar terminus at St Pancras. Now Paris, Brussels and stations beyond, are just a couple of hours away from the Crick. So rather than the 5 day journey, by coach, horses and boat that Humboldt took to get from Paris to London we now just hop on a train. I hope this proximity helps to reduce any perceived increased distance. It will certainly be up to us to make the extra effort that will now be necessary to keep the UK open for science. We might be facing a future of borders and visas but, unlike Humboldt, at least we won’t have Napoleon’s armies to contend with on our travels.

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