‘Things will only get worse’: fears top scientists may shun UK over Brexit

Posted on October 8, 2022Comments Off on ‘Things will only get worse’: fears top scientists may shun UK over Brexit

The future of British science has never been so gloomy. That is the stark view of a UK-based Nobel prize winner who has warned that top academics are giving up hope of the government negotiating membership of the Horizon Europe programme, and are preparing to leave the country.

These fears have been strengthened by Liz Truss’s failure to appoint a science minister in her new administration. Scientists and vice-chancellors interpret this as a sign the government is no longer committed to a deal on associate membership of the £80bn network, which funds research collaborations across the EU.

British scientists have had a strong record in attracting EU funds and loss of membership could have a serious impact on the future of UK research, they have warned.

The former Brexit secretary David Frost fought hard to get associate membership of Horizon Europe as part of the trade deal negotiations in 2020, but ratification was disrupted after the UK failed to implement the Northern Ireland protocol.

Many academics now say there is little hope of resolution, a point stressed by Sir Andre Geim, who won a Nobel prize in 2010 for his work on graphene and who is based at Manchester University.

“The situation for UK science has never been so gloomy and things will only get worse,” he told the Observer.

As an example of the dangers facing UK science, Geim revealed a talented young Ukrainian-Russian postdoctoral researcher had recently turned down a position on his team, saying moving to the UK was now too risky.

These fears were underlined by Chris Gosden, Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University. He has reached the final stage in a competition for a prestigious €10m collaborative grant from the European Research Council, which he believes could now fall apart.

Professor Chris Gosden, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University.
Professor Chris Gosden, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dr?goi/The Guardian

“It’s taken years of planning to get this research going and if necessary I will move somewhere in the EU to make it work,” he said. As well as working with partners in France and Germany, Gosden has spent years establishing a relationship with the Terracotta Warriors museum in China for the project, which will look at the formation of the first Chinese state.

Gosden said many researchers in the UK had been resisting job offers from abroad because they didn’t really believe the government would accept being shut out of a programme that nurtures so many important collaborations as well as delivering a high cash return. But he said most were now despondent, feeling “there isn’t much hope at all of association”.

This point was backed by Gaspar Jekely, professor of neuroscience at Exeter University, whose work on the evolution of vision is currently funded by a high cachet ERC advanced grant.

He said: “I will consider relocating if it isn’t resolved. If there was a good opportunity in Germany or Switzerland I would very likely move.”

Jekely said that as well as “significant movement of scientists” out of the UK, exclusion from Horizon Europe would also make Britain much less attractive to talented scientists abroad. “You work with colleagues who have the right expertise or the right samples, regardless of where they are. The more you isolate science the weaker it becomes.”

Simon Marginson, professor of Higher Education at Oxford University, was even more emphatic over the likely impact. “It’s a disaster,” he told the Observer. “Many high calibre researchers would leave while future research projects, collaborations and networks would simply not happen.”

Last year the government set aside £6.9bn for association with the Horizon scheme, or as a UK-based “Plan B”. But Professor Colin Riordan, vice chancellor of Cardiff University, warned “there was a real danger that we will find the funding that was promised has been eaten up in spending cuts.”

Sir Richard Friend, one of Britain’s top physicists and a director of research at Cambridge University, added that “the ongoing friction post Brexit” had meant Britain was already losing its position as a “destination of choice” for top students and postdoctoral researchers across Europe. “Losing these young researchers really matters. In 10 or 20 years we will notice there isn’t the same talent around and by then it will be too late.”

A spokesperson for the department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The UK government’s preference remains association to EU programmes, but we can not wait for the EU much longer – that is why we have developed bold and ambitious alternative plans that will make progress towards becoming a global science superpower.”

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