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Boffin braindrain risks Britain’s ascendancy

by Yojana Sharma | 03.08.2016

The EU science funding programme Horizon 2020 is one of the largest in the world. The success of British science in winning its grants and Britain’s leadership of European research teams have turned the country into something of a magnet .

In addition, the international prestige of European Research Council funding attracts top scientists from around the world.  That community now fears the breakup of these clusters as much as it does the loss of funding – more than €6.7 billion has been won for UK-based research since 2013.

Disruption caused by Brexit-related departures could affect particularly ascendancy in such fast-moving research areas as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, allowing countries like China to pull ahead.

Since the referendum, scientists have sought government assurances that nothing will change until Brexit itself. But, like it or not, everything has changed, not least because projects are planned three to five, or even ten years ahead, and the future is murky.

“We’re hearing about UK researchers being excluded from collaborations because their other EU collaborators don’t want to take on a UK-based researcher because they don’t know what their status will be,” said Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.  

The Royal Society wants the government to underwrite funding until the end of the grant, regardless of what happens with Brexit, because EU researchers “need to be reassured, if they are here and employed, they are not suddenly going to be told that they have to apply for permission or leave”.

Disruption

Mike Galsworthy of Scientists for EU, which has been collating evidence from its members of negative impacts since the referendum, cited 33 cases of disruption to Horizon2020 consortia since the referendum, “usually UK coordinators being asked to step down from their coordinating role”.

Of almost 400 responses so far, there were 84 cases of people planning to leave, citing Brexit. Seven have already gone. Another 25 instances were of researchers refusing a UK job or cancelling an application.

“Suddenly the UK is a lot less attractive and we will be haemorrhaging science leadership opportunities and haemorrhaging talents, and continuing to do so until our government can come up with a big bold commitment to science,” said Galsworthy.

Special case

Clues to the government’s plans for science after Brexit are scant. Still, some wonder if scientists and researchers could be a special case.

Anne Glover, a former science advisor to the EU Commission president, said at the largest gathering of UK and European scientists since the referendum, the EuroScience Open Forum, in late July in Manchester:  “It is unlikely that the UK government would wish to negotiate free movement of people or labour in a general context, but if we narrow it down … could we have Horizon 2020 with free movement of scientists as a starting point…?”

This would be classic cherry-picking that Angela Merkel has already warned against. A resounding “No” was tweeted by Martin Selmayr, head of cabinet for EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker.  

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Others felt special pleading for scientists was elitist. But the EU already recognises a special status for higher education and research, and is harmonising visa rules to make it easier for third-country students and researchers to enter. Britain has opted out of this new scheme but, ironically, its researchers could benefit if the country leaves the EU. Even more ironically, it may have to set up a similar system if it is to keep its status as a research world power.

Research clusters

This does not resolve the uncertainty faced by EU researchers already in Britain. Once broken up and dispersed, collaborative research partnerships cannot be put together again although some might be reconfigured elsewhere.

Studies have shown it is not just their specialised knowledge that scientists take with them. The impact of their network of highly skilled colleagues on a host country is greater than previously thought. Scientists fleeing Nazi Germany, plus their networks, helped to fuel US post-war science supremacy.

As anyone who has been involved in EU collaborations knows, building new cross-border teams and relationships takes time. Geneticist Robert Winston has said it is far more difficult to collaborate outside the EU than within it.

One idea is that Britain could establish an alternative “pole” of science, attracting top scientists and funding both from the US and EU and from other science powers such as China, Japan, South Korea and India. Keeping clusters in Britain could be a foundation to building relations on common interests in a post-Brexit world.

Edited by Jane Macartney