‘Things will only get worse’: Scientists fear UK may turn away from Brexit | Research funding
The future of British science has never looked bleaker. That’s the view of a UK-based Nobel laureate who has warned that top academics are giving up hope that the government is negotiating membership of Horizon Europe and preparing to leave the country.
These fears have been reinforced by the failure of Liz Truss to appoint a science minister in her new administration. Scientists and vice-chancellors are interpreting this as a sign the government is no longer committed to a membership deal associated with the £80billion network, which funds research collaborations across the EU.
UK scientists have been successful in attracting EU funding and losing their membership could have a serious impact on the future of UK research, they warned.
Former Brexit Secretary David Frost fought for Associate Membership of Horizon Europe as part of trade deal negotiations in 2020, but ratification was halted after the UK has not implemented the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Many academics now say there is little hope for a resolution, a point made by Sir Andre Geim, who won a Nobel Prize in 2010 for his work on graphene and is based at the University of Manchester.
“The situation for British science has never been bleaker and things will only get worse,” he told the Observer.
As an example of the dangers facing British science, Geim revealed that a talented young Ukrainian-Russian postdoctoral researcher had recently turned down a position with his team, saying moving to the UK was now too risky.
These fears were underlined by Chris Gosden, professor of European archeology at the University of Oxford. He has reached the final stage of a competition for a prestigious €10 million collaborative grant from the European Research Council, which he says could now collapse.
“It took years of planning to get this research started and if necessary I will move somewhere in the EU to make it work,” he said. In addition to working with partners in France and Germany, Gosden has spent years building a relationship with the Terracotta Warriors Museum in China for the project, which will examine the formation of China’s first state.
Gosden said many researchers in the UK had resisted job offers from overseas because they didn’t really think the government would accept being left out of a scheme that nurtures so many important collaborations while offering a high cash return. But he said most were now discouraged, believing “there is not much hope for association anymore”.
This point was made by Gaspar Jekely, professor of neuroscience at the University of Exeter, whose work on the evolution of vision is currently funded by a high-cost ERC Advanced Grant.
He said: “I will consider moving if the problem is not solved. If there was a good opportunity in Germany or Switzerland, I would most likely move.
Jekely said that as well as a “significant movement of scientists” out of the UK, exclusion from Horizon Europe would also make Britain much less attractive to talented scientists overseas. “You work with colleagues who have the right expertise or the right samples, wherever they are. The more you isolate science, the weaker it becomes.
Simon Marginson, a higher education professor at Oxford University, was even more adamant about the likely impact. “It’s a disaster,” he told the Observer. “Many high-calibre researchers would leave while future research projects, collaborations and networks simply did not materialize.”
Last year the government earmarked £6.9billion for association with the Horizon programme, or as a UK-based ‘plan B’. But Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University, warned ‘there is a real danger that we will find that promised funding has been swallowed up by spending cuts’.
Sir Richard Friend, one of Britain’s top physicists and director of research at the University of Cambridge, added that ‘ongoing post-Brexit friction’ meant Britain was already losing its position as a ‘preferred destination’. for the best students and postdoctoral researchers across Europe. . “The loss of these young researchers really matters. In 10 or 20 years, we will realize that there are no longer the same talents and it will then be too late.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The UK Government’s preference remains association with EU programs but we cannot wait for the EU much longer – that’s why we’ve developed bold and ambitious alternative plans that will make progress towards becoming a global scientific superpower.