Europe’s Nobel laureates step up warnings about Brexit’s effect on science

Leading scientists and mathematicians urge UK and European Union leaders to strike a deal on research amid stalling negotiations.

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May turns to face an out of focus Juncker during a news conference

UK Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have received a warning letter on Brexit from prominent scientists.Credit: Yves Herman/Reuters

Nobel-prizewinning scientists from across Europe have called on UK and European Union leaders to maintain the “closest possible cooperation” on science after Brexit, and have warned that any barriers to research collaboration in Europe will be to the detriment of all.

The calls were made in a letter — the most high profile to emerge from the research community in recent months — sent to UK Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on 19 October. They come as the United Kingdom rapidly approaches its deadline for leaving the EU — 29 March 2019 — and amid slow progress in agreeing on a deal for the country’s future relationship with the rest of the continent.

Brexit could see the end of the country’s participation in EU research programmes, which are worth tens of billions of euros — although UK leaders have indicated a desire to be part of future programmes.

The United Kingdom must now step up its commitment to EU programmes if it wants to remain involved, says the letter, which is signed by 29 Nobel laureates and 6 winners of the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics.

“All parties in the negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU must now strive to ensure that as little harm as possible is done to research,” the letter adds. “It is widely recognised that investing in research and innovation is increasingly crucial for shaping a better European future.”

Crunch time

It’s important to weigh in on the future of European science now, as the deadline approaches, says Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London and winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who led the letter. “It’s getting to crunch time.”

Ramakrishnan says that both the United Kingdom and the EU understand the importance of a good deal for science. “But it has been put on hold while other things are debated. Science needs to be brought back from the back burner and addressed.”

A good deal, he says, would be one in which the United Kingdom remains very closely associated with EU research programmes, and in which British scientists can lead projects and have a voice in what research gets supported.

The uncertainty over science is having a chilling effect on researchers in the United Kingdom, he says.

Scientists speak

That sentiment seems to be reflected in a survey of more than 1,000 staff members at the Francis Crick Institute in London, the United Kingdom’s largest biomedical research lab. The results, released on 22 October, showed that 97% of respondents think a ‘hard Brexit’ — the most extreme form of divorce — would be bad for UK science.

Just 10% feel confident in the future of UK research. Only 4% think that the government is committed to getting a good deal for science, and 3% think the government is listening to the scientific community.

Half of the institute’s staff say they are less likely to stay in the United Kingdom if they leave the institute.

Their worries focus on losing access to EU funds, as well as the hostile rhetoric around immigration.

“Brexit is a constant source of worry for me, both for my family and for my lab,” says Caetano Reis e Sousa, a Portuguese immunologist who leads a lab at the Crick. “I am concerned that our ability to attract the most talented scientists could be damaged by proposed immigration restrictions, and the atmosphere created by Brexit also makes me wonder whether this is the country to continue to bring up my children.”

Researchers have, on the whole, long opposed Brexit. In a survey of Nature readers in 2016, before the Brexit referendum, 83% of respondents were in favour of remaining in the EU.

Scientists interviewed by Nature in recent months have said that the damaging effects of Brexit are already being felt in labs across the continent, as UK scientists pull back from leadership roles in European projects, and promising young researchers decide not to take positions at UK universities or research institutes.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07146-x

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