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Hard Brexit could cripple UK science, warn top scientists

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4468 (Published 23 October 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k4468
  1. Matthew Limb
  1. London

Leading scientists have renewed warnings that a “hard” Brexit threatens European research progress, amid fresh signs that the UK will struggle to retain top scientists.

Paul Nurse, head of the Francis Crick Institute in London, said that exiting the EU without a deal in place could “cripple” UK science.

He was among 35 Nobel laureates and Fields medallists from around Europe to warn against new barriers emerging to scientific partnerships, in letters sent to the UK prime minister, Theresa May, and the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.1

The letters called for a Brexit deal on science and innovation that allows “the closest possible cooperation between the UK and the EU, now and in the future.” They highlighted the need for “the flow of people and ideas across borders to allow the rapid exchange of ideas, expertise and technology” and for the UK to step up its commitment to collaborative programmes.

“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,” they said. The letters were led by Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.

Paul Nurse said that young scientists were “depressed” about the messages coming from the government. The Crick Institute released findings from a survey of more than 1000 staff on 22 October, showing that 97% of scientists believed that a hard Brexit would be bad for UK science—76% judging it very negative and 21% negative.

Only 10% of scientists felt confident in the future of UK science. Just 4% thought that the UK government was committed to getting a good deal for science, and only 3% thought that the scientific community was being listened to.

The survey also found that many Crick Institute scientists were now significantly less likely to consider remaining in the UK when looking for their next role. Around half of them were less likely to stay in the UK when they leave the institute (25% “much less likely”; 26% “less likely”), and only 7% were confident that the UK would continue to attract top scientific talent.

Nurse said that the overwhelming negativity among scientists towards a hard Brexit should be a “wake-up call,” as it raised the prospect of the UK losing significant numbers of young scientists.

He said, “Science and research matter for the UK’s economic growth, for the nation’s health and quality of life, and for the environment. A hard Brexit could cripple UK science, and the government needs to sit up and listen.

“We need a deal that replaces the science funding lost because of Brexit, that preserves freedom of movement for talented scientists, and that makes them feel welcome in this country.”

Many experts have spoken in support of the letters. Anne Glover, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said that international collaboration and a sustained deep science partnership with the EU were vital in supporting scientific progress and social and economic wellbeing. “A no deal or a hard Brexit puts this at risk,” she said.

Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, also said that Brexit with no deal posed a grave threat to UK medical research.

“Almost 30% of UK academics in our universities are non-UK nationals, and one in six academic staff at UK universities are EU-27 nationals,” he said. “Without a deal the legal status of European researchers and their families is not protected, and there is a growing risk that this highly skilled and mobile workforce will leave, resulting in a less agile and collaborative research network.

“A bad deal for science will be an extremely poor outcome for the health of patients and citizens in the UK and Europe.”

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