Don’t let Brexit take the P’s out of UK science

Since June 23rd 2016, the date of the EU referendum in the UK, we’ve been living in the shadow of Brexit. Similar to most scientists I was, and remain, deeply disappointed with the result and I am worried about the effect it will have on the UK. Almost 18 months on from the vote we still have very little detail about what the outcome means but the extent of the damage is gradually becoming apparent. I was prompted to reflect on this recently when I was asked to participate in a public discussion, hosted by the European Parliament Office in London

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/en/ukevents/forthcomingevents/brexitscience.html

We were asked to explore the consequences of Brexit for science and research and the audience comprised science journalists, policy officers from learned societies, sociology academics and a couple of science attachés from European embassies. The event gave me an opportunity to collect my thoughts and present them to this group of people. Here are my notes.

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Discussion panel at European Parliament in the UK

I’m a research scientist at the Francis Crick Institute and I’m very grateful for this opportunity to give the perspective of a research scientist. I lead a team interested in how the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord – are formed before birth. This is revealing fundamental aspects of how a fertilised egg transforms into an individual. It also has implications for conditions such as spina bifida and spinal cord injury and diseases such as motor neuron disease.

My team comprises 16 scientists from a variety of disciplines: biologists, physicists, computer scientists. Three are from the UK, 10 have other EU nationalities and 3 are from outside the EU.

Our work is funded by a variety of sources. Including UK agencies such as the MRC and BBSRC, charities such as the Wellcome trust. But a substantial amount of funding is international. I have a European Research Council Grant worth ~£2M over five years and also collaborative grants with European colleagues and with US colleagues.

My situation reflects the broader position at The Francis Crick Institute. The Crick is a biomedical discovery institute dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. We address the big questions and the big health challenges – cancer, heart disease, dementia, birth defects, infectious diseases…

44% of our researchers are EU nationals from outside of the UK. We have just completed the recruitment of new research group leaders. Half of the applications came from EU/EEA citizens and the three candidates we recruited were all Europeans – Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese. In addition, the institute received about £5 million from EU funding last year to support our research.

I have three concerns about the consequence of Brexit for science and research. I call these the three P’s:

People, Participation and Perception.

People:

The strength of UK’s research rests on recruiting and retaining the very best scientists, whatever country they come from. Tightening immigration rules or introducing barriers is likely to be detrimental. Science is international and relies on the friction free movement of people and ideas.

Participation:

By contributing to EU programmes and collaborations – such as the ERC –  we not only receive funding but also gain sway over the direction of research and we acquire prestige and recognition that boosts the UK. Full participation in international collaborations, advisory boards and committees allows the UK to influence the themes of research and allocation of funding.

Perception:

The message being heard outside the UK – by colleagues from in the EU but also the rest of the world – is that the UK is no longer an open, progressive and supportive environment for science. We appear to our colleagues and partners to be turning our backs on the world. This is wider than the EU – I’ve had questions from colleagues from Singapore to Los Angeles. The world is asking what will happen when the UK leaves the EU; what will be the affect on funding and the right to live and work in the UK.

Particularly problematic is the continuing uncertainty about the future of EU citizens in the UK is harming research now.

So my worry is that Brexit is taking the P’s out of UK science.

With this pessimistic analysis, what can the government do to mitigate the damage. The government has been saying the right things, but words are not enough. It is far from clear that Brexit won’t introduce barriers to the ready transfer of ideas, skills and people on which the best science relies. These might be unintended but devastating none the less.

First, we need immediate clarity on the rights of EU citizens and their dependents living and working in the UK.

Second, we need to establish rules for the free movement of students, scientists and their families.

Finally, we should commit to fully participate in future EU research programmes and facilities.

Bearing in mind the European Parliament will have a vote on the final Brexit deal, MEPs have an important role to play. I would like to see MEPs championing the case for science and research across the EU and the UK. Details such as the regulation of clinical trials and drug licensing must be in the Brexit agreement and most importantly we must maintain a collaborative and open environment for research.

The questions and challenges we face are universal and do not respect national borders. The answers that science can provide have the potential to benefit us all. But it requires international collaboration and cooperation. Friction free movement of people and ideas has the best chance of finding these answers. I firmly believe that no Brexit and reversing the course we are on is the best option for the UK and the EU but above all, let’s make sure that science and research are not an unintended casualty of Brexit.

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