Post-Brexit science landscape – Parliamentary Links Day 2016

By Dr Aoife Kiely, Research Associate at the UCL Institute of Neurology

Intro panel
From left: Stephen Metcalfe MP, Nicola Blackwood MP, Jo Johnson MP, Dr Stephen Benn and Rt Hon John Bercow MP. Photo: RSB

The morning of the Parliamentary Links Day I woke up nervous. I’m not generally a ‘business formal’ style of scientist so the imposter syndrome fear of standing out, or going wrong loomed large. However, any nerves were dwarfed by my excitement to take part in the event and meet other delegates and find out what plans politicians had to support UK science post-Brexit. 

As an early career researcher I fear the implications of the UK exit from the EU. Funding for post-doctoral or fellowship positions is scarce at the best of times, I’ve faced particular challenges as my passion lies in researching a relatively rare Parkinson’s-like disease: multiple system atrophy (MSA). Without the EU I worry that UK scientists will be excluded from a significant portion of funding opportunities and indeed be excluded from EU consortia and collaboration opportunities.

Within the meeting room, conversations buzzed with talk and speculation of Brexit. I was glad I had grabbed a good seat early since by the time the meeting began the room was standing room only.

For me, the key issues that concerned me about Brexit were:

  • How will this affect science funding?
  • How will this affect the reputation of UK science?
  • How do politicians feel about the chances of ‘Brain Drain’?
  • How will this affect my collaborations?
  • And also how will this affect day-to-day life in the lab?

To my understanding, the overall message of the day was: keep calm, we don’t know all the details just yet, please carry on. This, as a take home message, is not quite as reassuring as I would have liked it to be.

Science funding

In general the day’s speakers and panellists reassured us by saying nothing has actually changed ‘yet’. We were reminded by Jo Johnson MP and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell of the significant leadership the UK has had in global scientific endeavours including CERN and the European Space Agency. While Nicola Blackwood MP assured of the protection of science funding, stating that government support of research and development had risen to 3% and intends to stay there.

The risk of ‘brain drain’

Sir Venki Ramakristnan - Royal Society - keynote
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan. Photo: RSB

Emigration of highly trained individuals from the UK or dissuasion of their immigration to the UK, is more difficult to address. This, to me, seems to all depend on the talks which politicians will undertake in the next few weeks and months. In my view the key actions for the government to clarify will be their support of UK science, and whether a special freedom of movement allowance could be made for those in the scientific community. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, reminded us all of the significant contribution immigrants and their families have historically made to UK science, winning Nobel prizes and being Presidents of the Royal Society, much like himself. He eloquently encouraged curbing of racist and xenophobic attitudes so that we can cement our reputation as an open and inclusive member of global society. If we want to recruit the finest talent, our immigration policies must reflect this. Though immigration may be difficult to negotiate, government support for science should be a less divisive issue. I did particularly enjoy the wry suggestion from Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who suggested the government ought to funnel the money they would ‘save’ from not being in the EU into science funding.

UK science remains ‘open for business’

Another key message from the day was I think most concisely expressed by Nicola Blackwood MP who stressed that the UK remains firmly open for business as a willing collaborator. Dame Bell Burnell reassuringly said that science offers an alternative network to that of the political world and that we must all work to maintain and strengthen our global scientific networks.

Photo: RSB

From a personal standpoint much of the discussion went close to how I had anticipated. Details of how Brexit will affect our day to day lives as scientists are unknown because they simply haven’t been figured out yet, we’ll have to wait and see. What has reassured me is that I can see that scientists do have a voice loud enough to be heard by government and excellent advisers and committee members are there advocating for us. In addition, thanks to my lucky invite to lunch at the House of Lords, I had the chance to meet fellow members of the scientific community and I went away deeply impressed by the innovative and determined spirit of those I spoke to, reassured that no matter what the politicians may decide, we as scientists are part of a strong and resilient community and we can overcome the shifts in political landscapes.

Read more about Links Day on the Royal Society of Biology, BBC news, Times Higher Education and BuzzFeed websites.

‘Impact of EU membership on UK molecular bioscience’ report is available online.

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