Two recent British Nobel laureates have warned of the effect that Brexit and Brexit-aligned policies may have on science in the UK. Duncan Haldane, who was awarded the Nobel prize for physics Tuesday, warned that Brexit would cut scientists off from valuable research grants from the European Research Council. He said he had considered moving back to the UK from Princeton, New Jersey, until Brexit threatened to prevent British scientists from receiving these grants.
“I was seriously considering coming back a few years ago,” Haldane said. “It was suggested it might be possible to get one of these €5m ERC grants. That’s much better support than I can get here. These grants are specifically aimed at bringing established people back. Without that it makes it more difficult for people to come back.”
Haldane also called for scientists to receive protected statuses for visas in the face of Brexit.
Additionally, Sir Fraser Stoddart, a Scottish chemist who was awarded the Nobel prize on Wednesday, expressed his own concerns regarding the effect of anti-immigration efforts. He said such crackdowns would discourage British scientists as well as those from overseas.
“I am very disturbed by the talk coming out of the UK at the moment. Anything that stops the free movement of people is a big negative for science,” Stoddart said. He went on to add that he has personally advised younger scientists to consider work outside of Britain, in case of upcoming difficulties for the British science community.
He said, “It’s not going to be good news for British science. There are a lot of things that, particularly as a Scottish person, you can’t make your mind up about. But there’s no doubt in my mind about this. I do feel very strongly about it.”
Haldane relocated to the United States in the 1980s as a response to cuts to science funding, at the hands of the conservative Thatcher government.
Universities in the UK currently receive research funding from the EU worth about 1.2 billion pounds. Both Israel and Switzerland ‘buy in’ so that their scientists are able to access these grants, although Switzerland’s access is now in jeopardy due to their own proposals to tighten borders with the EU.
Scientists have never been as divided as the general public about the prospect of an EU exit. A March poll in the journal Nature showed that 83 percent of researchers working in the UK wanted Britain to remain in the EU. Half of these researchers believed that Brexit would be “very harmful” for science in the UK.
According to Paul Nurse, director of The Francis Crick Institute, “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science. That, combined with mobility [of EU scientists], gives us increased collaboration, increased transfer of people, ideas and science—all of which history has shown us drives science.”
Responding to these concerns, a UK government spokesman made the following statement:
“This government has been clear that we will make a success of Brexit, including for our world class universities. The UK has a long established system that supports, and therefore attracts, the brightest minds, at all stages of their careers. We fund excellent research wherever it is found, and ensure there is the freedom to tackle important scientific questions. Leaving the EU means we will be able to take our own decisions about how we deliver the policy objectives previously targeted by EU funding. Over the coming months we will consult closely with stakeholders to review all EU funding schemes, thereby ensuring that all funding commitments serve the UK‘s national interest.”
Most scientists seem to believe that the risks and losses will outweigh any possible benefits. If Brexit comes to pass, only time will tell whether these fears are unfounded.