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Scientists among thousands marching to demand say on Brexit

Hundreds of thousands of people protested in London to push for a say on the terms of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

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EU supporters prepare to participate in the 'People's Vote' march in central London.

Scientists marching against Brexit say that it will damage UK and European science. Credit: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Scientists took to the streets of London on 23 March as part of a major demonstration calling for the terms of Brexit to be put to the British people in a vote.

Some researchers wore lab coats and safety goggles and held placards as they marched. Others told Nature that they were protesting to demand Brexit be reversed and that the looming split was already negatively affecting recruitment, EU researchers’ willingness to enter into collaborations, and supply chains for laboratory materials.

“For scientists, any form of Brexit is bad,” says Stuart Conway, a chemical biologist at the University of Oxford who attended the march and wants people to have the chance to vote again on Brexit, with the option of remaining in the EU.

The scientists’ rally was organized by the campaign group Scientists for EU and formed part of the wider protest coordinated by campaign organizations including Open Britain, a pro-Europe group that opposes aspects of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

The deal, agreed between UK and EU officials last November, has been divisive among UK politicians. It would allow the United Kingdom to leave the EU and enter a 20-month transition period in which the UK–EU relationship — including science funding and immigration rules — would stay largely the same. During this time, the two sides would negotiate the terms of the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the bloc.

But many politicians say the deal could leave the United Kingdom indefinitely entangled with the EU without a say over regulations because of a controversial policy called the Irish ‘backstop’.

Nationwide movement

Organizers expected 300,000 people from around the United Kingdom to take part in the march, which started near London’s Hyde Park and ended with speeches in Parliament Square. Early reports of crowd sizes suggest up to 1 million people may have attended.

Angella Bryan, a clinical scientist affiliated with the University of Manchester got up at 6 a.m. to travel to London. “This is our future and we are wasting money by not being in the EU. So we need to be here and forget about Brexit,” she says.

Stephen McLaughlin, a biophysicist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, says that he was marching to support UK science and had just returned from a biophysics meeting in Zagreb that brought together European researchers. “We share ideas, best practice, and we can get funding for short-term visits,” he says.

“It is really important that we use our neighbours to increase and enhance our science in the UK,” he adds. “Everybody is quite nervous about what is going to happen.”

Susan Lea, a structural biologist at Oxford, who attended the rally with her team, says that three-quarters of her group are from outside the United Kingdom.

“We have had huge issues with recruitment. We have had several people pull out shortly before interviews for jobs,” she says. “Europe and the movement of scientists is absolutely core to what we do in science.”

‘Rational thoughts’

Since before the Brexit referendum in June 2016, in which the British people voted by a slim margin to leave the EU, UK scientists have broadly said that Brexit would be a disaster for research. The split would disrupt collaboration, immigration and funding, they say, and threaten access to the EU’s multi-million-euro research programmes, from which UK scientists have historically drawn outsize benefits.

Many scientists and research leaders have said that the uncertainty caused by Brexit has already damaged British and European science.

“This is a crucial issue for scientists because science relies on rational thoughts, facts, collaborations and openness, and Brexit basically goes against all these values,” says Jean-Martin Lapointe, a pharmaceutical researcher at drug company AstraZeneca near Cambridge. He says that although scientists are often silent politically, he feels it is important to get involved.

Lapointe adds that AstraZeneca is already having issues with shipping samples and getting permits because of Brexit. “People are refraining from making plans that involve collaborations with other sites and countries, and it is having a chilling effect on a lot of aspects of our research,” he adds.

Deal talks

May has so far failed to get her hard-negotiated deal approved by UK members of Parliament (MPs), who have rejected it twice. EU leaders have agreed to delay departure until 22 May as long as MPs back the deal.

If the deal does not pass, May has until 12 April to forge new way forward or the United Kingdom will crash out of the EU without any trade or migration agreements, which is widely predicted to cause chaos. This ‘no deal’ scenario would cut Britain off from EU research funding overnight and disrupt clinical trials, data collection and the import of lab supplies. Although the government has agreed that it would supply the lost money for existing EU grants and successful bids made before 2021, the details of how this would happen remain unclear.

More than four million people have now signed a petition on Parliament’s website demanding that Brexit be stopped.

Signatories include Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel-prizewinning structural biologist and the president of the Royal Society in London, who told Nature he had added his name in a personal capacity.

“Speaking purely personally, I can think of no benefit of Brexit for UK science. The damage to Britain’s reputation as an open society and a welcoming magnet for global talent needs to be reversed,” says Ramakrishnan, who was not at the protest. It is time for politicians to “consider either reversing or ameliorating this national act of self harm”, he says.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00968-3

Additional reporting by Nisha Gaind.

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