In the face of a hard Brexit, which could allegedly cripple UK science, scientists have written letters to Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker setting out their concerns

Written by Rebecca Hall
Images by George Hodan

A letter signed by 29 Nobel prize-winners and six Fields Medal winners says the UK ‘must now strive to ensure that as little harm as possible is done to research.’ 

One of the signatories is Sir Paul Nurse, the British geneticist who won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on cancer therapy. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The government doesn’t seem to be putting this at the top of its agenda. I can’t tell you how depressed our young scientists are about the messages coming out of government.’

The government doesn’t seem to be putting this at the top of its agenda

The concerns centre not just around funding, but also around the mobility of scientists.  According to the Royal Society, over the period 2007-2013 the UK received €8.8 billion out of a total of €107 billion expenditure on research, development and innovation of EU Member States, associated and third countries. This represents the fourth-largest share in the EU.

The letter from the scientists came amid warnings that emergency powers may be needed to ensure patients can still have access to the medication they need if a no-deal Brexit occurs. The Healthcare Distribution Association said 50% of medicines in a typical wholesaler’s warehouse had been through the EU in some way.

The University of Birmingham’s research and innovation is likely to be affected by Brexit, with the main programme for research from the EU, known as Horizon 2020, already providing the university with funds and opportunities.

It promptly cuts off the flow of excellent people who are coming at the moment

On their relationship with the EU, the University has stated: ‘We have benefited greatly from EU funding for some time and hopefully will continue to do so in whatever guise, but it is timely that we start thinking more creatively and exploring other avenues to either expand on or explore.’

In terms of mobility, it has been acknowledged that there will be less access in the case of hard Brexit. Catharine Barnard, EU Law professor at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It promptly cuts off the flow of excellent people who are coming at the moment.’

A hard Brexit has yet to be confirmed, given the current state of the government at this point in negotiations. Yet, a hard or no-deal Brexit looms ever closer and could have implications on the UK’s sciences, research and innovation for several years to come.