brexit science

Protect funding and freedom of movement post-Brexit, say Nobel laureates

A group of the most esteemed figures in science – including dozens of Nobel laureates – have called on UK and EU Brexit negotiators to reach a Brexit deal which protects research.

The scientific community has been almost fully united in its opposition to a hard Brexit, due to the benefit that UK science reaps from major EU research funding programmes and freedom of movement across the continent. Some have said that the research community is already feeling the impact of the vote to leave the EU.

Today, the results of an internal survey conducted among staff at the Francis Crick Institute (the largest single biomedical laboratory in Europe) found that 51 per cent of its scientific staff were less likely to stay in the UK following Brexit. This included a large majority of its EU27 staff (which make up 40 per cent of its workforce). Overall, 97 per cent of Crick staff said that a no-deal Brexit would be bad for UK science, while 82 per cent said that it would be bad for European research.

Crick Institute director and Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning to explain the “huge concern” of the scientific community regarding the possibility of a hard Brexit.

“I can’t tell you how depressed our young scientists are about the messages coming out of government,” he told science minister Sam Gyimah on the programme. “This is just awful. You are letting your extremists dominate the debate. You have to get a grip on them.” Nurse added that the extra funding being dedicated to UK research over the coming years would not directly replace the EU funding that could be lost in the event of a hard Brexit. Nurse estimated that £1bn funding could be lost every year if the UK leaves the EU without a deal in March 2019.

Nurse is one of 29 Nobel laureates to sign the letter. They are joined by six winners of the Fields medal (the most prestigious award recognising achievement in mathematics), among other scientists.

The letter is directed at Theresa May and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. It argues that while science plays an important role in tackling global challenges, such as mitigating climate change, this is dependent on “the flow of people and ideas across borders”.

The letter calls on UK and EU negotiators to “ensure that as little harm as possible is done to research” by prioritising protecting funding and freedom of movement.

Some scientists have expressed a hope that the UK could negotiate a close relationship with the EU with regards to research funding programmes, such as the ‘Associate Country’ status held by Norway, Switzerland and Israel. Associate members can contribute to and access the key EU Framework Programmes for research.

Meanwhile, guaranteeing freedom of movement - at least for researchers - could ensure that European researchers could continue to collaborate with UK colleagues and institutions without the bureaucracy involved with applying for a visa.

“Many of us in the science community […] regret the UK’s decision to leave the European Union because it risks such barriers,” the letter said.

Fellow signatory and Nobel prizewinner Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said that the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit was having a negative effect in the scientific community and added that a good deal would involve the UK continuing to be fully involved with EU research programmes.

The UK innovation community may also experience disastrous impacts from a no-deal Brexit, given its support from European bodies, experts have warned.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles